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Is China Wary of India’s “Look-East Policy”?

Both the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and India agree over the need for building a ‘harmonious, peaceful and prosperous’ East Asia and assess positively the significance in this regard of the roles of mechanisms like the ASEAN partnership summits and the East Asian Summit (EAS). The two rising powers however basically differ on the leadership aspect concerning the EAS mechanism. Admittedly, Look East Policy per se is not a China-India issue, but as it is closely linked with New Delhi’s ability to benefit from such mechanisms, the implications of China’s emerging perceptions, especially on the EAS, become crucial for India, with potentials to affect even the future course of bilateral ties.

Specifically dividing China and India is an issue, which has geo-political dimensions – participation of non-regional powers in the EAS process. Beijing is laying heavy emphasis on the role of ASEAN + 3 with the PRC providing ‘long term and strategic guidance’, as the ‘main channel’ for East Asia cooperation. In its view, China will be a powerful promoter of and a pillar to such cooperation, which has the potentials to develop into an ‘East Asian Commonwealth’. As a sign that India’s participation is not welcome, in early 2005, Beijing was diplomatically active in dissuading nations in the region from lobbying for India’s membership; this received no support from any country except for Malaysia, which was interpreted as reflecting in general the keenness of regional powers to balance China’s growing profile in the region. Consequently, China was forced to choose the next best option, by attempting to divide the EAS membership into two blocs- ‘Core’ states with China leading inside the 10 plus 3, as main channel for building ‘East Asia Community’ and the three peripheral states of India, Australia and New Zealand, described in the Chinese media as ‘outsiders’.[1] China also quickly moved for Russian participation, in an effort to balance the presence of US allies in the EAS.

The Chinese approach has not changed yet, with Beijing still talking about “promotion of the regional integration by the countries in the region, with characteristics of the region and suited to the needs of the region”, while simultaneously pleading for giving “full consideration to reasonable interests in the region of non-East Asian countries”.[2] The term “ full consideration” implied a secondary status to the three EAS partners from outside the region, India, Australia and New Zealand. The EAS Statement’s assertion (Singapore, 20 November 2007) that the ASEAN plus 3 mechanism would be the ‘main vehicle’ and the ASEAN the ‘driving force’ in building East Asia Community and failure to mention the three non-regional powers, were largely seen as a result of Chinese pressures; a Singapore official during the summit, even named China for blocking the entry of the three, while talking to the press. China’s approach, by inference, appears to be based on a premise that if outside regional powers are allowed to play prominent roles in building East Asian Community, it may result in a shift in the regional power balance, damaging its strategic interests. As against this, New Delhi, in the interest of its ‘Look East policy’, is pitching for the roles of ASEAN plus 6 in the regional integration process, with full backing from countries like Japan and Singapore

The Chinese also have different perceptions on another aim of India’s Look East policy – to form a Pan Asian Free Trade Area (PAFTA) as a starting point for an Asian Economic Community (AEC). Though the PRC was a party to the decision in the Cebu meeting of the EAS for initiating a Track II study on Comprehensive Economic Cooperation in East Asia involving all EAS partners (India’s PAFTA concept in essence), it is maintaining a silence over India’s AEC proposal. In fact, so far no Chinese leader or document have ever mentioned about the AEC. The PRC’s State-controlled media have however given a negative connotation to India’s AEC proposal by observing “India’s AEC proposal is not being warmly responded to by any country, as each has its own considerations”.[3] India had already expressed its support to Japan’s proposal (August 2006) for a Pan Asian trade bloc, consisting of ASEAN plus 6 nations including India. Through its media, Beijing had strongly attacked the intention of Tokyo to ‘maintain Japan’s dominant position in the East Asian economic order, contain China and South Korea and restrict ASEAN’.[4] Such attitude of China could reflect its suspicions that PAFTA or AEC schemes may ultimately lead to an erosion of China’s influence in East Asia.

Also on the desirable security order in East Asia, the formulae of India and China are at variance. New Delhi’s prescription for a ‘polycentric’ security concept for East Asia would imply India’s opposition to any one country (read China) dominating the regional security architecture when set up. Beijing, on the other hand, talks about a ‘regional security environment of mutual trust guaranteeing stability by bridging differences through dialogue on an equal footing’. The think tanks in the PRC are also questioning India’s intentions in the field of East Asian security order. In their view, India’s Look East policy towards ASEAN has maritime implications and at the second stage of the policy, New Delhi will expand the scope into political and security realms and bring the India-East Asian cooperation on counter-terrorism, maritime security etc under its grand strategy aimed at controlling the Indian Ocean, particularly the Malacca Strait.[5] They are at the same time assessing that India, despite its Look East policy, will always have limitations in interfering in regional hotspots like Taiwan, South China Sea islands and North Korea and that as such, the countries in East Asia may see India as an Indian Ocean power only, rather than that of the Asia Pacific.[6]

As another point of Sino-Indian differences, China is strongly opposed to ‘exclusivity’ in the matter of East Asian integration. It has stated that “China supports open regionalism, has an open-minded approach to regional integration and opposes self-enclosed or exclusive East Asia cooperation or cooperation against any particular party. Cooperation should grow in a balanced way, bringing benefits to all and bridging differences through dialogue on an equal footing. Disputes should be resolved through holding friendly consultation and seeking common ground while shelving differences”. This stand exposes China’s apprehensions about possible efforts in future on the part of external powers to somewhat exclude from or weaken its leading role in East Asia integration process. Beijing’s such a position also reflects its fears over likely pressures against China’s interests at some point in future on unsolved regional issues (e.g. South China Sea islands, Sino-Japan conflict on gas exploration in East China sea, Taiwan etc). In contrast, it is obvious that India has no such concerns. The only task for New Delhi will be to skilfully handle its ties with and ‘engage’ China, which it is already doing.

China may also feel that India’s Look East policy may result in a Sino-Indian competition in capturing the East Asian markets. China-ASEAN trade remained robust (more than US$100 billion in 2006). India is trying to augment its trade level with ASEAN (below US$ 20 billion in 2006). India is also losing no time in responding to China-ASEAN FTA, with quick steps to sign a similar FTA with ASEAN.

A point of strategic concern for the PRC could be India’s increasing role in China’s neighbourhood. Through its ‘Look East’ policy, New Delhi is getting closer to Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam in the fields of economy, politics and security. China, particularly through the media, has already alleged that India’s Look East policy is geared to hedge against China through developing military relations with the PRC’s surrounding countries. Particular accusation has been that India is following a three-pronged strategy to monitor China’s missile systems including in the border areas – CARTOSAT 2A satellite programme, radar station in Mongolia (to monitor space activities in Gansu, south of Mongolia) and cooperation with US, Japan, Australia and even Taiwan (in the field of signal intelligence).[7] Reference to India-Taiwan collusion marks a new trend. The media is also pointing out towards the port calls by Indian naval vessels in Vietnam, Philippines and the expected visit of India’s aircraft carrier to Malacca Straits and the Pacific, subsequent to the Bay of Bengal Joint Naval Exercise, held in September 2007.[8]

What do the Chinese perceptions mean for India? They reveal a clear picture towards the PRC’s existing reservations on India’s Look East policy, which cannot yet be called obstacles. They only imply Beijing’s grudging acceptance of that policy at this stage, based on the thinking that India is still a weak player in terms of trade and security in East Asia and it will take a long time for New Delhi to consolidate its position in the region, to be able to challenge China. China’s fears have now extended beyond India’s Look East policy, to strategic questions like whether India is on the way to becoming a part of Western alliance. Chinese State-controlled media have for the first time criticised what they called the common wish of the US and India, to balance the forces in Asia through their nuclear and defence cooperation.[9] The media is also seeing the Japan’s proposal for a ‘quadrilateral’ democracy initiative involving New Delhi, Canberra, Washington and Tokyo, as directed against China and are noting India’s receptivity to it. They have also viewed the India-Japan-US military exercise held last year off Japanese coast and the five-nation (India, US, Japan, Australia and Singapore) Naval drill in the Bay of Bengal in September 2007, as targeting China. Overall, Beijing’s strategy for the present can be to compete or cooperate with India depending on the circumstances, while taking care in ensuring that a peaceful periphery continues to prevail in the interest of China’s modernisation.

What India can do, is to respond to China’s sensitivities. The converse is also true. India’s policy to address China’s doubts on the implications of Look East policy should be constructive, without ganging up with others against China. To inject further confidence and trust in its relation with China, New Delhi needs to take further imaginative steps to draw Beijing firmly into the bilateral economic and trade web. No doubt, the trade ties are on the upswing, but the process towards signing a Comprehensive Economic cooperation agreement with China should be speeded up by India. In this way, China may willy-nilly become prepared for offering quid pro quo to India in the matter of connectivity to East Asia. New Delhi should also take advantage of the sentiments of countries like Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam and Japan, all of which wholeheartedly perceive India’s role as of crucial importance to East Asia. More the support India gets from the ASEAN, China’s surrounding nations and Japan, stronger will be the position of India to neutralise China’s apparent doubts on India’s Look East policy. The ASEAN-India Free Trade Agreement has to be concluded sooner than later. The US-India civil nuclear cooperation and defence agreements have introduced a new element to India’s Look East policy, which should be exploited by India for entering the APEC as a member. The statements of the Indian External Affairs Minister Mr Pranab Mukherjee on China relations while he was in Thailand and South Korea last year go to prove that India has already started taking certain pro-active remedial steps aimed at reassuring China on contentious issues.

A long-term regional scenario however seems to be fraught with uncertainties. China and Japan have become economic and political equals now, for the first time in the history, thanks to the former’s rapid rise. In response, Japan is revamping its political, defence and security policies. As a consequence, a power play among the two is already on in East Asia on the issue of regional leadership, notwithstanding the tactical steps taken by the two sides, like exchange of high level visits, to defuse tensions. South Korean power is also on rise and if and when India, with the help of its Look East policy, is able to join the race, the regional situation can become further complex, posing tough challenges to the China-Japan-India triangular relations. The three nations, as major players in Asia, will have a heavy responsibility at that time to act together for guaranteeing peace and stability in Asia. It is hoped that the ongoing visit to China of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will provide an opportunity for the two nations to discuss both short and long-term regional scenarios and in particular, to narrow down their differences on the subject of India’s Look East policy.

(The writer, Mr.D.S. Rajan, is Director, Chennai Centre for China Studies, Chennai, India. Email:


[1]. People’s Daily, 7 December 2005 [2]. Premier Wen Jiao Bao speech at the East Asia Summit (Kuala Lumpur, 14 December 2005) [3]. People’s Daily, 7 December 2005 [4]. People’s Daily, 26 August 2006. [5]. Testimony before US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, by Professor James Holmes, US Naval War College, 14 June 2007. [6]. Professor Zhao Gancheng, Director of South Asia Studies, Shanghai Institute of International Studies, Shanghai (Paper at SIIS-Brookings Conference on Regionalism in Asia, Shanghai, 11-12 December 2006) [7]. International Herald Monitor, (Chinese), Xinhua affiliated journal, 22 August 2007 and China Defence Daily, 20 August 2007 [8]. China Institute of International Studies website (Chinese), 9 march 2007 [9]. People’s Daily, 30 August 2007.

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