Looking East
India's Growing Role in Asian Security

by Harsh V. Pant
September 9, 2013

Harsh V. Pant (King’s College London) examines India’s “look east” policy and the country’s deepening ties with East and Southeast Asia. He argues that India is gradually emerging as a serious player in Asia’s security as it seeks to develop stronger trade and diplomatic ties with the region’s smaller states.

In July, the Myanmar Navy’s commander-in-chief, Vice Admiral Thura That Swe, sought the help of the Indian government in building offshore patrol vessels and in supplying naval sensors, as well as other military equipment, indicating a deeper level of relations between the two nations. Myanmar naval personnel are already trained at various institutions in India, and the Indian Navy has given Myanmar four Islander maritime patrol aircraft in the last decade. However, Naypidaw is clearly looking for a more robust defense partnership with New Delhi. At around the same time, India offered a $100 million credit line to Vietnam on the purchase of military equipment, which will be finalized during the visit of the general secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam to India later this year. Usually a privilege reserved for India’s immediate neighbors, this is the first time that New Delhi has extended a credit line for defense purchases to a geographically more distant nation.

Together these two developments underline a new seriousness in New Delhi’s “look east” policy and the growing importance of India in the foreign policy matrix of nations in East and Southeast Asia. When the Cold War ended in the early 1990s, India was liberated from the structural constraints of the rigid bipolar world order. The government of late P.V. Narasimha Rao, which was undertaking a far-reaching economic liberalization program in New Delhi, decided that the time had come for India to seriously engage with its neighbors in East and Southeast Asia. Initially, this strategy was primarily viewed as economic so as to draw linkages with the world’s most economically dynamic region. But such engagement soon became a geostrategic necessity for India as the rise of China challenged the fundamentals of Indian foreign policy, forcing New Delhi to rethink its inward-looking strategic orientation. Gradually a process began whereby India strengthened security ties with regional states to underpin its centrality in the strategic landscape.

As China has risen economically and diplomatically, its foreign policy has assumed a more aggressive orientation vis-à-vis its neighbors. On the one hand, New Delhi perceives a new offensive by China on the border issue, with Beijing trying to change the facts on the ground through repeated incursions. China’s maritime neighbors have also been troubled by new and more strident claims being made by Beijing. China’s attempt at dictating the boundaries of acceptable behavior to its neighbors has led these states to increasingly look to India as a critical balancer in the region. In the words of Singapore’s elder statesman Lee Kuan Yew, India should be “part of the Southeast Asia balance of forces” and “a counterweight [to China] in the Indian Ocean.” [1]

For its part, India is trying to carve out a more robust posture toward China. After downplaying its differences with China for years, India has recently been more vocal in demanding reciprocity. Since 2010, it has avoided reaffirming its commitment to the “one China” policy, arguing that Kashmir is a core concern for India as Taiwan, or Tibet, is for China. As such, New Delhi has refrained from making a unilateral commitment on Tibet in recent years. At the same time, it has been taking steps to increase its infrastructure and military deployment along the border, most recently by deciding to proceed with the creation of a new mountain strike corps of nearly 40,000 troops. The corps will be deployed along the disputed border with China by the end of 2016.

As a part of this balancing process, India has reached out to its partners in South and Southeast Asia in order to develop a stable balance of power in the region. India’s ties with Japan have steadily strengthened. Though economic ties are yet to reach their full potential, political and security ties have never been stronger. Of all recent Japanese leaders, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been the most enthusiastic about the future of the India-Japan relationship and is trying to impart a very different dimension to it. Given Abe’s admiration for India and his repeated articulation of the need for India and Japan to work more closely on international issues, new opportunities are emerging for this bilateral relationship.

Yet it is New Delhi’s engagement beyond Tokyo that has been most impressive. India and the ten-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have concluded talks on a free trade agreement (FTA) on services and investment. The FTA is expected to increase bilateral trade to $200 billion by 2022 and lead to talks on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, which would also include Australia, China, Japan, South Korea, and New Zealand. With China-ASEAN ties under stress due to Beijing’s aggressive territorial claims, New Delhi has been trying to fill the void by emphasizing its credentials as a responsible regional stakeholder. It has made a strong case for supporting not only freedom of navigation but also access to resources in accordance with principles of international law. When China suggested that it would like to expand its territorial waters—which usually extend twelve nautical miles from shore—to include the entire exclusive economic zone, which extends two hundred nautical miles, it challenged the fundamental principle of free navigation. All maritime powers, including India, have a national interest in freedom of navigation, open access to Asia’s maritime commons, and respect for international law in the South China Sea.

India has taken an interest in the evolving realities in the South and East China seas, and in the process tensions with China have intensified. In October 2011, India signed an agreement with Vietnam to expand and promote oil exploration in the South China Sea and later reaffirmed this decision, despite Beijing’s challenge to the legality of India’s presence in the area. In December 2012 the Indian naval chief reiterated New Delhi’s ambitions to expand its footprint in the region, which has historically been viewed as outside India’s core interests, when he suggested that the country must be prepared to protect its economic assets in the South China Sea. Such statements have unsettled China, which is suspicious of India’s growing engagement in East and Southeast Asia.

The United States has encouraged these efforts by New Delhi to assume a greater role in the region. Exhorting India to lead and look beyond its immediate neighborhood, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton asked it in 2011 “not just to look east, but to engage east and act east as well.” [2] Likewise, ahead of his maiden visit to India in July, Vice President Joe Biden stated that the United States welcomes and encourages India’s emergence “as a force for security and growth in Southeast Asia and beyond.” [3] U.S. and Indian interests thus converge in the Asia-Pacific region, and the two states should think creatively about how best to work together to ensure regional stability.

India is gradually emerging as a serious player in the Asian strategic landscape as smaller states reach out to it as a key regional balancer and seek to develop trade and diplomatic ties. However, New Delhi still has a long way to go in assuring these states of its reliability, not only as an economic and political partner but also as a provider of regional security.


[1] P.S. Suryanarayana, “China and India Cannot Go to War: Lee Kuan Yew,” Hindu, January 24, 2011.

[2] Hillary Clinton, “Remarks on India and the United States: A Vision for the 21st Century” (remarks in Chennai, July 20, 2011),

[3] “U.S. Welcomes India’s Emergence in Southeast Asia and Beyond,” Press Trust of India, July 19, 2012.

Harsh V. Pant is Reader in International Relations at King’s College London. He is also an Associate at the Centre for Science and Security Studies and the India Institute at King’s College London. He is an Adjunct Fellow with the Wadhwani Chair in U.S.-India Policy Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington, D.C. His current research is focused on Asian security issues. His most recent books include The U.S.-India Nuclear Pact: Policy, Process and Great Power Politics (Oxford University Press), and The Rise of China: Implications for India (Cambridge University Press).