In September 2014, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had summit meets with the leaders of Japan, China and the US. The summit meets initiated the unfolding of India’s policy towards the East Asian region. By choosing Japan as his first destination outside the Indian subcontinent and also by having an exclusive five-day programme for Japan, Modi gave clear signals about the preference and direction of his foreign policy. Further, he also referred to and expressed his disagreement with the ‘tendency of expansionism’, indicating China, suggesting that India is geared to more overtly confront China’s ‘growing assertiveness’. It seems that India considers Japan’s strong response to China as basically a ‘reaction’ and appears to not only be in agreement with Japan in confronting China but also ready to join the their efforts. It was therefore a very clear and strong Indian message to China.
The messages of the India-Japan summit meet cast its shadow over the Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to India in mid-September. In the beginning, it was expected that China would try to placate India by offering more Chinese investments in India. However, the summit meet was not satisfactory for either side. During the visit, the issue of Chinese ‘incursions’ made headlines in the Indian media and both countries could not release a joint statement after the summit meet. There could be various explanations and theories about China’s behaviour, but even without any Chinese ‘incursions’ it would not have been a successful bilateral exchange as it happened in the context of India’s very vocal support to Japan. Additionally, the Indian President concluded his visit to Vietnam just before the Xi Jinping’s visit to India.
In another important development, Modi made a much anticipated visit to the US in late-September. The visit was important in the context of the misunderstanding between Modi and the US authorities on the issue of his visa in the past. Modi was able to transcend this old misunderstanding and move beyond it. The visit was also important for Indian policy towards East Asia as for the first time in history, the joint declaration by the US and India mentioned the South China Sea. The US has been eager for India to play a role in East Asia for some time, and it has referred in the past to a more active role by India in the Korean problem and through the use of terms such as ‘Indo-Pacific’. However, the reference to South China Sea in the joint statement with India has been the most direct one yet, which sends a significant message to China.
In a way, it seems that India’s role in East Asian politics is growing through India’s alignment with Shinzo Abe’s Japan and the US. It is definitely going to put pressure on China, as it would not be easy for China to overlook Japan, India and the US trilateral understanding and common approach.
It must be emphasised that taking sides between Japan and China or the US and China has probably been the easiest foreign policy choice for India. However, this would also mean that India would be sucked into a vortex of the big powers’ game, which is neither a wise option for India nor India is prepared for it. A much more challenging course for Indian foreign policy would be to lead regional politics by bringing in constructive, cooperative and innovative issues and ideas and by not leaning towards any of these two rival groups. The historical, ideational and material capital of India must be invested in such a futuristic vision for Asia rather than going back to the archaic concepts of balance of power and containment.
In the last three summit meets, the new Indian government made a strong statement to China against its ‘assertive’ and ‘expansionist’ tendencies. It could be said that a strong message to China was required, which has become more ‘assertive’ vis-à-vis Southeast Asian countries, Japan, and to an extent, India. However, it would be more prudent for the Modi government to avoid populist and easier options which might be counter-productive for India and the region in the long-term. The success of Indian foreign policy-making towards East Asia has been its principled engagement with all possible countries in an open manner. Having an overt alliance against China might look attractive in the near future but the unfolding of its repercussions would not be beneficial for the stakeholders. Thus, it would be better for India to continue its open, balanced, principle-based and futuristic approach towards friendly and not-so-friendly countries in the East Asian region.