Towards Southeast Asia: India’s Balancing Strategy

On December 21, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Vietnamese counterpart Nguyen Xuan Phuc held a virtual meeting to discuss issues encompassing the India-Vietnam strategic partnership. The two leaders also hinted at China’s growing assertiveness in the region by emphasizing that the Code of Conduct on the South China Sea should fairly balance the interests of other states in the region, placing an emphasis on a rules-based order and the United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). India’s role at this meeting and willingness to weigh in on the South China Sea is representative of a broader balancing strategy of India leveraging its relationships with Southeast Asian states to deter China’s assertion in South Asia. At a time when China is expanding its strategic footprints in South Asia, India is investing heavily in a broader balancing strategy through its Act East  Policy, which has been the framework for India to enhancing strategic relations with countries that share common concerns on China’s growing assertiveness.

The renewed challenges brought by China’s intrusion into the Indian territory of Eastern Ladakh—which led to the deaths of at least 20 soldiers of the Indian Army and a still unreported number of Chinese soldiers—have further complicated India’s security concerns. As tensions with China continue, New Delhi has begun further intensifying its security and strategic partnerships with states in Southeast Asia, particularly key claimants in the South China Sea dispute. In fact, one of India’s immediate responses after the border clash was to send its warships into the South China Sea. Connecting the dots, these actions appear ready to counterbalance China’s revisionist actions in the region.

China’s Ambitions in South Asia

China’s ambition to be the dominant power in Asia rests on increasing its influence and naval presence in the strategically located South Asian and Indian Ocean region. Eighty percent of China’s oil imports pass through the Strait of Malacca, which is a critical transit route in the Indian Ocean. Alongside China’s energy interests in the region, China has significantly expanded its naval capacity towards the Indian Ocean and forged closer security partnerships with the states of South Asia including Pakistan and Bangladesh. In addition, China’s rapidly expanding mega-investment projects in key South Asian states have motivated an increased presence of its navy to safeguard its assets and its vital sea lines of communication.

As tensions with China continue, New Delhi has begun further intensifying its security and strategic partnerships with states in Southeast Asia, particularly key claimants in the South China Sea dispute.

These actions are not simply aimed at enhancing China’s power, but also undermining and eroding the role of India in the region. China’s actions are motivated by the concern brought by the deepening strategic partnership between India, the United States, and its Asian allies. With the United States and its allies consolidating power in the Pacific, and India maximizing its power in the Indian Ocean, China fears of being trapped in between. As a result, China aims to fracture this growing partnership by challenging India’s influence in the Indian Ocean Region. China has stated that its ambitions in the region are the protection of its “maritime rights and interests” and safeguarding its “overseas interests.” Considering that India is the only state in South Asia and the greater Indian Ocean Region to have the capacity to significantly challenge China’s strategic interests, China has thus engaged in a policy to constrain India’s diplomatic, economic, and power projection capabilities in the geographic space. This policy includes the supply of military equipment, the increase in economic aid, and the expansion of mega-infrastructural investments to other states in the region to improve China’s regional standing over India’s.

This string of events has motivated India to craft a counterstrategy to offset its strategic challenge in its immediate geographic neighborhood. As a result, India has begun looking East to balance China’s assertiveness.

India’s Pivot Towards Southeast Asia

In the past, India’s relations with Southeast Asian states lacked momentum particularly in the security realm, in part due to concerns over China’s response. Two decades ago, despite the willingness of Southeast Asian states to have India play a bigger role in the region, India showed reluctance in forging strong security relations with its Southeast Asian partners. In fact, India’s earlier attempts to engage with Southeast Asia was disregarded by China as a disastrous and “desperate attempt” to increase its influence in the region. However, as China continued to increase its assertion in South Asia and beyond, India has begun recalibrating its China policy.

Prime Minister Modi’s Act East Policy provides an important multi-dimensional framework for India to engage actively with its neighbors in Southeast Asia, especially on the strategic level. However, With China’s recent transgressions along the LAC, India is confronted with a challenge that would require it to further maximize this framework. By continuing to bank on the Act East Policy, India aims craft a more effective balancing strategy in Southeast Asia, which will allow it to even out the geopolitical playing field vis-à-vis China.

Accordingly, India is starting to focus attention towards the security issues that plague the states of Southeast Asia, particularly China’s expansive claims in the South China Sea. In a diplomatic breakthrough, Indian Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson Anurag Srivastava highlighted in July 2020 that the “South China Sea is a part of global commons… We firmly stand for the freedom of navigation and overflight and unimpeded lawful commerce in these international waterways, in accordance with international law, notably UNCLOS.” This strong statement to counter China’s territorial claims on the South China Sea was followed by a series of high-level engagements between India and the other claimant states of the disputed region.

India’s pivot to Southeast Asia also includes strategies broader than directly opposing China’s ambitions. Recently, India has signed several agreements with Vietnam in areas ranging from defense to renewable and nuclear energy, including a framework agreement that provides Vietnam two lines of defense credit worth a combined USD $600 million. India and the Philippines have also expressed satisfaction in their evolving partnership in the Indo-Pacific region, including ongoing talks for the purchase of defense platforms, particularly the BrahMos supersonic missile system, by the Philippines. India and Indonesia have resolved to expand their defense partnership, recently undertaking a coordinated patrol between the Indian and the Indonesian navies.

By forging closer strategic relations with the Southeast Asian states, India is slowly establishing itself as a more formidable counterweight to China. Given its lack of vested territorial or revisionist interests in the region, India has projected itself as a more benign and responsible rising power. As a result, there has been support among the Southeast Asian states in accommodating India as a security partner and as a deterrent to China’s assertive and unilateral practices.

With leaders wanting to hold China accountable for its inefficient handling of the spread of COVID-19 in its earlier stages, and its continuous coercive ad unilateral actions throughout the Indo-Pacific, India can leverage on its partnerships and apply more pressure on China. Moreover, adding more pressure in China’s backyard may be a critical strategy to challenge China’s assertiveness in other regions.

The Future of India’s Balancing Strategy

In response to China’s expansion into South Asia significantly compromising India’s regional interests, India has embarked on a broader balancing strategy in Southeast Asia to deter China’s assertion. This strategy may significantly even the odds in the greater geopolitical game between the two Asian powers, but to succeed at this strategic balance, India will have to remain committed with its engagements to its neighbors in the East.

The effectiveness of this strategy will depend on India’s ability to maintain mutually beneficial partnerships with Southeast Asian states. One way for India to signal its positive intentions is by showing its willingness to pay attention to the security issues that these states face.

The effectiveness of this strategy will depend on India’s ability to maintain mutually beneficial partnerships with Southeast Asian states. One way for India to signal its positive intentions is by showing its willingness to pay attention to the security issues that these states face. India can also signal its lack of interest in territorial claims to establish itself as the more favorable alternative to China in the region. However, the importance of signaling positive intentions is crucial as Southeast Asian states may become wary of India if it pushes for an assertive military-oriented policy in the region. As a result, India can be careful to strike a balance between maintaining positive relations with Southeast Asian states and balancing against China.

As India aims to become a global power, it will have to take and make decisions that open itself to closer relations to key states. India’s broader balancing strategy in Southeast Asia is a step in the right direction and India must maintain its momentum in building strategic partnerships with Southeast Asian states.

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Image 1: via Press Information Bureau, Government of India

Image 2: Manan Vatsyayana/AFP via Getty Images

Posted in , China, COVID-19, Foreign Policy, Geopolitics, India, Indian Ocean, Indo-Pacific, Politics

Don McLain Gill

Don McLain Gill is an international affairs researcher and author based in the Philippines. He is currently completing his master’s in International Studies at the University of the Philippines Diliman. He has written extensively on issues of regional geopolitics and Indian foreign policy. 

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