With the exception of Iran and Russia, most of India’s substantial bilateral partners are those that have been courted by New Delhi in an attempt to resurrect the Cold War mentality of opposing cooperation with China. While India’s Russian and Iranian partners have long forsook this zero-sum mentality, in BJP controlled New Delhi, it is alive and well as if in a strange time-warp that seeks to combine India’s 1990s era economic reforms with the most strained Cold War era episodes of poor relations with neighbouring China.
To understand the difference between the modern foreign policy aims of China and India, one can contrast the goals and origins of China’s Belt and Road vis-a-vis the Act East initiative as framed by India’s current Prime Minister Narendra Modi. For China, Belt and Road is about creating an atmosphere in which the following positive trends can flourish: enhanced economic connectivity in the wider Afro-Eurasian space, new opportunities for countries to export to markers further afield than they were previously able to do, new opportunities for developing countries to get sustainable investment from wealthier partners, as well as opportunities for developed economies to revitalise their trading partnerships so as to avoid the onset of stagnation.
Crucially, China has taken the Belt and Road initiative both to traditional partners like Pakistan as well as to NATO countries like Turkey, Cold War rivals like Russia, both Korean states, the politically diverse nations throughout the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and emerging markets throughout Africa. In other words, Belt and Road is motivated by a need to fulfil and expand current economic requirements and aspirations throughout Africa, Eurasia and even beyond, while planning for a sustainable economic future for all partners in the Belt and Road initiative and associated projects.
While India’s Act East is intended to entice partnerships based on many of the same benefits associated with Belt and Road, one cannot help but to categorise Act East as both reactive and partly reactionary, as opposed to organic, original and politically neutral. While India has in fact had some success in respect of generally pairing Act East with the US led anti-China initiative known as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (aka the Quad) – a fledgling security partnership between the United States, India, Japan and Australia, this “success” actually is the biggest liability of Act East when contrasted with Belt and Road.
While Belt and Road has no political, ideological or security component, Act East very much does, both by default and by design. As India’s Act East partnerships are designed to form a bulwark of nations that are united by historic disputes with China, it can be said that by design, the project has a clear geopolitical rather than just an economic aim. Secondly, by so closely associating Act East with Quad membership, India has by default turned its flagship project in Asia into one that is indelibly associated with an overly broad American security (aka military) initiative.
While Vietnam has long held disagreements with China, recent trends have seen ASEAN adopt a model of dialogue with China as the format for conflict resolution in the South China Sea, as first pioneered by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte before being adopted at an ASEAN wide level. As such, Hanoi has ultimately restored a sense of calm to China-Vietnam relations. Because of this, it should not have been surprising when Vietnam politely rebuked its Indian partner in saying that it has no desire to join the Quad or any other alliance that will see Vietnam dragged into the conflicts of other states.
At the same time, Washington’s failure to grant tariff exemptions to its Indian partner have resoundingly disappointed Indian policy makers who expected to be economically rewarded for flying the US flag of Sinophobia in Asia. The result has been a series of events which hint at a possible India-China rapprochement in 2019. At this month’s G20 summit in Argentina, the previously dormant RIC format of Russia-India-China cooperation was revived as Russian President Vladimir Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi met to discuss issues related to trade and other important areas of mutual concern. Weeks later, China and India held their first ever high-level people-to-people exchanges mechanism in New Delhi in a further sign that cultural exchange can help to overcome the suspicions of the past.
In this sense, India should be reconsidering its positions in terms of foreign non-alignment in the same manner in which Vietnam has openly refrained from engaging in membership of alliances which could drag Vietnam into the conflicts of others. As Vietnam has rejected the Quad while still maintaining good relations with Washington, India could also gradually pivot towards its version of s similarly genuinely “multi-aligned” position.
If there is a single lesson to be derived from Vietnam’s rebuffing of partnering with the Quad, it is that an organic, original and positive multilateral initiative is always more sustainable and therefore a better sell than one done from a position of reacting, opposing and offering a negative position on another nation’s initiative. If India can manage to one day pivot the trajectory of Act East from an anti-Chinese measure to one which seeks partnerships with all, ideally including China, India could help to not only heighten its credibility as a major sovereign Asian power, but would also benefit itself and others more profoundly in a material sense.