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Review: India - As An Asia Pacific Power

books Updated: Feb 03, 2012 18:52 IST

Pramit Pal Chaudhuri, Hindustan Times
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India: As An Asia Pacific Power

David Brewster

Routledge

Rs. 7,157  pp 219

India is in the throes of rekindling ambitions to be a maritime power. At the heart of this is a belief that its interests in the Indian Ocean are expanding and under threat. An offshoot of that is a bit of flag-waving in the Pacific as well. David Brewster, an analyst from Australia, a littoral country of both oceans, gives a useful if limited assessment of whether New Delhi has the will and wherewithal to be an ‘Indo-Pacific’ power.

Brewster sees two external drivers pushing Indiato take a blue water view of its neighbourhood. One is the pull of United States’ encouragement, the other the push of China’s growing military profile. He accepts this is not the whole story, that “India’s strategic motivations in the Asia-Pacific go well beyond balancing China”. Yet there is sense that a book so grounded in geopolitics underestimates how much economic concerns are influencing India’s maritime policy. And there is a Washington push factor as well — India is starting to worry at the vacuum that is going to arise from the steady shrinkage of the US naval presence in the southern Indian Ocean.

Brewster has no illusions about the many limitations and failings that afflict India’s great power ambitions. Mastery of its coastal areas, let alone the Indian Ocean, will strain India’s capacities. The Pacific Ocean is on the outer edge of its ambitions. In both oceans, India will need to secure its interests by winning friends and building influence. Diplomacy and defence relationships will be as important as laying keels and laying out runways. This is doubly true for the Pacific. “For many years to come, India will to a significant degree need to cooperate with local partners to project power into the region — much more so then major powers situated on the Pacific Ocean.”

One of the better aspects of the book is the point by point dissection of who those possible friends can be. Japan “holds the key to any major expansion of India’s strategic influence in the Asia Pacific”. So rapidly have India and Japan seen relations evolve that some of Brewster’s assumptions — that Japan is wary of letting China be a major factor in its India relationship or that Tokyo would prefer Indian power stay west and south of Singapore — are probably obsolete.

The two countries will hold their first bilateral exercises this year. New Delhi is also readying to make its first quasi-military hardware purchase from Japan In Southeast Asia, Singapore is identified as the local champion of India’s Look East policy. But the future of Indian influence in the region lies, he argues, with Indonesia. Brewster criticises India’s chariness regarding military assistance to Vietnam without recognising that this is partly affected by Hanoi’s ambiguity towards to India in other arenas. The fact the book avoids military bean-counting and keeps its economics only skin deep is useful because it keeps the geopolitics in focus, but flawed as it misses the multifaceted nature of India’s interactions with countries like, say, Malaysia and Thailand. Brewster, however, recognises that India’s overall Southeast Asia policy works through a matrix that goes beyond just Chinaand trade.

Thankfully, there is no hysteria about the India-China relationship. Brewster says there is a lot of pragmatism in New Delhi about China, an acceptance there will be competition but nothing that need be unmanageable.

The books’s primary limitation is that it is really about India’s role in southeastern Indian Ocean and the neighbouring areas of the Pacific. Bangladesh and African littoral barely gets a mention, nor do the mid-ocean islands of Sri Lankaand the Maldives. Yet New Delhi’s Indian Ocean strategy makes little sense if one looks only at its eastern flank. There are a few other missing links as well. Thus India’s inability to join the Proliferation Security Initiative is really about membership criteria that requires a Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty signature.

His short accounts of India’s past policy towards Southeast Asia and Australia is the best evidence of how far Indiahas moved. Nehruvian India had no interest in Southeast Asia, rejecting a request from Singapore that Indiatake over the latter’s security. We are also reminded of how contemptuous Japan was of India’s Soviet tilt and economic record in the 1970s.

Brewster posits a number of possible scenarios for India in the Indo-Pacific, from a solo geopolitical performance to getting caught in a three-way great power conflict. It says something that a case can be made for any of these scenarios becoming reality. Such is the flux in the world today. And they could all prove wrong. India’s becoming a player in its oceans is not a given and the barriers towards this goal are considerable, not least because most of them are on the home front.