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Looking East, pragmatically

June 07, 2013 11:23 IST

India's commitment to an open and plural security architecture attests to the fact that Asia's transition is a dynamic of both power & identity, says Zorawar Daulet Singh

India's Look East policy got a fillip last week. In Tokyo, the Indian prime minister stated, "At a time of global uncertainties, change and challenges, India and Japan are natural and indispensable partners for… a peaceful, stable, cooperative and prosperous future for the Asia Pacific and Indian Ocean regions."

In the economic sphere, India packs a modest punch. Japan-India trade of $18 billion is dwarfed by Japan-China commerce of $340 billion. The one recurring pattern in East Asia's political economy is of a dynamic division of labour where successive states plugged into the core economy to spur domestic growth. In the 1980s, confronted by a protectionist backlash from the West, Japanese multinationals fragmented their production process by slicing and offshoring low- and mid-value segments of the manufacturing supply chain across East Asia. Though geographical proximity helped, China leveraged this opportunity to storm into the world trading system a decade later.

The Tokyo joint statement targets specific locales across India -- all aimed at buttressing domestic connectivity and capacity. Perhaps India could attract Japan to relocate some of its supply chain. Ironically, such offshoring might also improve the deficit with China that is graduating to a higher-value segment in the same production process. Can India Inc step up to the plate?

Geopolitically, Asia is churning. How can India make sense of the "uncertainty" and carve out a regional role? Policy-makers and analysts are grappling with the Asian puzzle in which the pacifying effects of economic interdependence are receding. The materialism that informs liberal theories about the logic between interdependence and peace is being questioned. The missing link can be traced to ideas and emotions that conventional scholarship dismisses as "irrational".

Perceptive observers now recognise that Asia's transition is a dynamic of both power and identity. For example, Gilbert Rozman,  a professor at Princeton University, argues that East Asia is undergoing an identity flux, where foreign policies are being shaped by the search for a stable national identity and role in the emerging order.

East Asia's history has made this process even more boisterous. China's history with Japan is well known. It was hardly surprising that Li Keqiang, during his India visit, chose to invoke the image of Dwarkanath Kotnis, a selfless Indian doctor who treated Chinese troops in their independence struggle against Japan in the 1930s. The Korea peninsula, too, has a past with Japanese annexation that still shapes perceptions. Though it is the North Korean regime that has a self-image as the vanguard of Korea's independent anti-colonial identity, South Korea, too, has struggled with its role as security partner of its former coloniser.

India's Look East discourse mostly ignores such perceptual and identity factors vis-à-vis the history of Japanese militarism. The post-1945 reconstruction of Japanese identity was an extraordinary exercise in which the victor socialised the vanquished into a new role that was firmly in place once the Pacific Cold War  erupted in the 1950s. China's rise reopened the question of Japan's resumption of normal sovereign rights.

Perhaps the most India can do is empathise with regional perceptions of militarist Japan's legacy, and simultaneously recognise that its emasculated role since 1947 probably makes it tough for Japanese politics to objectively assess its militarist past that was purged from Japanese institutions after its defeat. Interestingly, the Japanese defence minister's remarks at the recent Shangri-La Dialogue that "Japan caused tremendous damage and suffering to… Asian nations" is a positive sign.

It is unclear whether the US can sustain its role of regional manager indefinitely. Arguably, despite the rhetoric of a Pacific "pivot", the structural trend is of formerly subordinated states assuming more control of their destinies. This is unlikely to be a smooth ride and Washington should responsibly secure its interests rather than exploit identity politics for transient benefits.

China's rise also has implications for the regulation of the emerging order. What ideas will inform the future order? History offers few viable templates.

The pre-19th century Sinic-world order relied on a hierarchical principle with China as the "Middle Kingdom". This order was based less on military coercion than on a self-image of Confucian moral superiority, and Chinese emperors expended much treasure to socialise the region to China's cultural hegemony. It collapsed with entry of the European powers that shocked China out of its "Middle Kingdom" complex.

The other image of regional order is of an aggressive Japan leveraging its industrialisation to colonise the Western Pacific and continental East Asia.

Clearly, history offers more lessons than solutions. This is where India can make a normative contribution. India has always believed that bloc-based systems destabilise and perpetuate security dilemmas. India's official pronouncements must remain committed to an open, inclusive and plural security architecture and not a closed hierarchical system. This is a realist rather than a post-modern insight, and India's Cold War experience attests to this.

This also implies eschewing securitising the "Indo-Pacific" via narrow images of maritime strategists who rarely articulate the ingredients of a sustainable order. That the Tokyo joint statement excludes the very term "Indo-Pacific" indicates a prudent Indian posture. Going forward, India should interpret the "Indo-Pacific" concept holistically by constructing a role to shape and benefit from inter-regional economic and security interdependence.

Finally, by recognising history's relevance in shaping contemporary East Asia's identity politics, India can craft a more sophisticated regional policy.

Even as it grapples with identity and role crises, Japan's technological base is formidable. India is a rising power confronting several domestic hurdles. The logic of cooperation is clear. Although the conceptual underpinnings of an Asian order remain contested, India and Japan will be important pillars of any future order.

The writer is a research scholar at King's College, London

Image: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh with his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe in Tokyo last week

Zorawar Daulet Singh