Sikkim border standoff: India's Look East policy has utterly failed, China is a problem of our own making

In early June, two helicopters of the People's Liberation Army of China (PLA) hovered over Chamoli district. The act triggered concern in India's security establishment about the PLA. After all, this was their fourth incursion into Indian airspace since March 2017.

 Sikkim border standoff: Indias Look East policy has utterly failed, China is a problem of our own making

File image of Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping. Reuters

China defended the act, saying it had a territorial dispute with India in the eastern section of their boundary and that the Chinese military carry out regular patrolling in the relevant areas.

Interestingly, the incident occurred just days after Prime Minister Narendra Modi, while visiting Russia, stated that not a single bullet had been fired at the India-China border in the last 40 years despite the simmering boundary dispute between the two neighbours.

Where some might see coincidence, others say this is just the latest example of China testing India and the failure of its Look East policy, which was introduced under PV Narasimha Rao and endorsed by the Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh governments and later rebranded as "Act East" policy by Modi (which focused on North East).

What is the Look East/Act East policy?

According to Institute for Defence Analyses experts Rajorshi Roy and Sampa Kundu, the Look East policy aimed at reducing India’s isolation in international affairs and boosting India’s involvement with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in order to benefit from the advantages of regional cooperation. ASEAN comprises 10 countries: Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

China, the real danger

However, some argue India's focus on the Look East/Act East policy, overlooked the real threat to India, namely China.

Experts have been sounding the alarm bells with respect to the Dragon as far back as 2009, when in the aftermath of the 2008 Mumbai attacks, former prime minister Manmohan Singh government had been focusing its attention on Pakistan.

Then Indian Air Force chief Fali Homi Major said: "China is a totally different ballgame compared to Pakistan," he said. "We know very little about the actual capabilities of China, their combat edge or how professional their military is…they are certainly a greater threat."

Writing for the South Asia Monitor,  Delhi-based strategic analyst Jai Kumar Verma argued in late 2016: "The real danger to India is however, an expansionist China; it is member of United Nations Security Council with veto power, and has lot of surplus funds which it spends on poor countries to gain their support. China is much ahead of India in military power; it has bigger armed forces, more and better nuclear warheads and is modernising its armed forces at a much faster pace than India, especially in cyber and space."

The BBC quoted India's former eastern army chief of staff Lieutenant General JR Mukherjee as saying, "China has vastly beefed up its military infrastructure in Tibet and we are only catching up. Unless we do that, China will always arm-twist us on the border and try to impose a solution on its terms."

Writing for The Times of IndiaIndrani Bagchi said: "China is playing the same game in South China Sea and PoK (Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir) – inch forward, but altering the ground situation irrevocably on the way. In fact, the PLA’s frequent incursions/ transgressions (whatever you will) also have the same aim of marking territory. China is using both infrastructure and political tools to make Pakistan 'own' PoK."

China's String of Pearls and India's response

Writing for India Today, Prabhash K Dutta argued that by asserting its control over Pakistan's Gwadar port, China seems to have completed its String of Pearls — which refers to the number of civilian and military projects in Strait of Malacca, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, the Maldives, the Strait of Hormuz, Somalia, Bangladesh and Myanmar and which may, in the near future, allow China a foothold in the Indian Ocean region and some day become a Blue Water Navy — Dutta argued that China has been strategically cultivating relationships to encircle and isolate India.

But all is not lost. Dutta argued: "India has invested a lot diplomatically and entered into multiple pacts with countries like Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Mongolia - all surrounding China. Besides, India has good old friends in Japan, South Korea and Russia."

India's muddled approach to One Belt One Road initiative

Soon after he took office, Modi told world leaders his government accorded high priority to turn India's erstwhile "Look East" policy into an "Act East" policy.

However, the truth is that the prime minister's efforts have been inconsistent at best.

Take the Dragon's greatest and most controversial gambit:  One Belt One Road initiative (OBOR), which comprises various infrastructure projects surrounding the establishment of rail and road communication links between Gwadar on Pakistan’s Makran coast to Kashgar in China’s Xinjiang province.

India boycotted China's high-profile Belt and Road Forum, protesting the fact that the Chinese-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) traversed through Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir (PoK). While some declared it as a "moral victory" and praised India for taking the high ground, others assailed India for giving in to China.

Writing for The Indian Express, former Union minister Manish Tewari described India's abstention from OBOR as the grandest failure of Indian foreign policy. "By boycotting the summit rather than showing up and making our voice heard loud and clear in the comity of nations, India has in fact sent out a message that it will make proforma noise on this issue but actually acquiesce to the fait accompli," Tewari wrote.

Time for a new look

In December 2016, this Firstpost article argued that India is in dire need of a new China policy. The article credited the signing of the Border Peace and Tranquility Agreement in 1993 as the reason for the relationship between the countries stabilising after the 1962 India-China war, and opined that while it allowed for peace and focus on developing their economies, it was time for a new look.

"The strategy has served India well for at least a quarter of a century, a surprisingly long time considering the dynamic nature of foreign policy, but not anymore. There are increasing signs now that the balance of power between India and China has changed. There is now less equilibrium between both nations who may not yet be on a path of direct confrontation but find themselves frequently locking horns on several issues on their divergent paths towards emerging as new 21st century powers... From India's point of view, the time is ripe for a re-engagement based on mutually agreeable interests. Peace with a China is imperative if India is to pursue its own trajectory to greatness."

Only time will tell if India can tame the Dragon.

With inputs from agencies

Updated Date: Jun 29, 2017 13:34:32 IST