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India Turns East: International Engagement and US-China Rivalry by Frederic Grare- Review

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Book title: India turns East: International engagement and US-China rivalry

Author: Frederic Grare

Publisher: Penguin Viking


Pages: 265

Price: Rs. 599

External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj recently visited Thailand, Indonesia and Singapore to deepen India’s relations with ten nations of Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). The visit was part of country’s effort to hold bilateral interactions with the Southeast Asian countries within the framework of India’s now Act East Policy. The ASEAN nations consisting of Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam are important for India as they have dynamic economies and culturally, socially we have much similarity.

On the occasion of Republic Day this year India has invited heads of state and government of ASEAN nations. This is a departure from the tradition. It also indicates how much importance India is giving to its Eastern neighbours. It can also be seen as a “warning” to South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation (SAARC). The leaders of SAARC were invited by PM Narendra Modi for his swearing-in ceremony on May 26 2014. The leaders of all seven other nations of SAARC including then Pakistan’s PM Nawaz Sharif attended it. Now, there is a complete pause on Indo-Pak dialogue and it has affected SAARC. The last Summit was held at the end of 2014 in Kathmandu and since then SAARC Summit could not take place.

India’s Look East Policy (LEP), over the years, has passed through various phases. The Narendra Modi government turned it into Act East Policy. The first phase of LEP began when Narasimha Rao was PM. It was the period which saw collapse of USSR and end of the cold war. The initial thrust was to attract foreign direct investment (FDI) from developed countries of Asia like Japan, Korea, and Taiwan etc. China emerged as a major force and its influence increased in the Asia.  ASEAN nations also recorded double-digit growth throughout 1990s.

The recent book India turns East: International Engagement and US-China Rivalry by Frederic Grare focuses on India’s LEP. Grare is a former French diplomat and has served at French embassy in Pakistan and as a director of the Centre for Social Sciences and Humanities in New Delhi. It is a story of India’s long and difficult journey to reclaim its status in a rapidly changing Asian environment increasingly shaped by the US-China rivalry. The author believes Narasimha Rao had to reconsider India’s foreign policy after the collapse of India’s friend and then all-powerful Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). The process of India and US coming close also began gradually. The most significant achievement in the deepening of Indo-US bilateral relations took place when India-US nuclear agreement was finalised.

India initially hoped to get support from Japan and Taiwan after the end of cold war. But they were more interested in Southeast Asia. It prompted Rao to turn towards ASEAN. In search of the means to finance the economic reforms initiated in 1991, Narasimha Rao reformulated India’s international relations and LEP. It was an attempt to reconnect with Asia as part of India’s economic liberalisation and globalisation. Grare says, ”India’s Look East Policy cannot be entirely explained by China’s rise and India’s desire to counter it. Yet ongoing bilateral disputes and mistrust between Beijing and New Delhi coupled with China’s growing economic, political, and military role in Asia and beyond, have been important motivators behind India’s engagement with the region.”

The relationship between India and China is complex. We have serious border disputes with China. After 1962 Indo-China war, diplomatic relations between two countries were suspended. During the Janata Party regime then External Affairs minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee went to China to discuss border and other issue. China attacked Vietnam when Vajpayee was visiting China. In 1988, then PM Rajiv Gandhi visited Beijing. The trade between two countries is increasing rapidly. The leaders of both the countries have visited each other’s nation recently but even then Doklam happened. India and China are together in Shanghai Co-operation Organization (SCO) and Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS). Still mistrust remains. China is Pakistan’s all-weather friend and has blocked India’s entry into Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG).

China remains India’s main security challenge. India is wary of China’s alleged attempt to encircle India. China is funding and constructing ports in Gwadar (Pakistan), Hambatota (Sri Lanka), Kyaupkyu (Myanmar) and Sonadia (Bangladesh). The book gives insight into India’s strategic and economic options in South East Asia and Asia.