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Shubhendra Mishra asked: How is the Look East Policy of India different from that of Russia, and how Chinese response to both can be explained?

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  • Rajorshi Roy and Sampa Kundu replies: There are several components to the query, each of which has been dealt with under the following sub-heads:

    India’s ‘Look East Policy’
    India’s Look East Policy (LEP), initiated by former Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao in early 1990s, 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. India’s attempt to build a meaningful cooperation with Southeast Asian countries has been well reciprocated and at present India and ASEAN share vibrant economic, strategic and political ties. This includes the signing of FTA in goods, services and investments. Maritime security, connectivity, etc., are other areas of common concern.

    In recent years, a visible change has happened in India’s LEP. India has re-energised its LEP to further strengthen its relations with the entire East Asian and other parts of the Asia-Pacific region. Often this is considered as LEP 3.0. India’s enthusiasm was evident when External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj called for an “Act East Policy” during her recent visit to Vietnam in August.

    Russia’s Policy towards the ‘East’
    In contrast to India’s LEP, it appears that Moscow’s ‘eastern’ policy is guided primarily by following factors: (a) search for new energy partners due to Europe’s decision to diversify energy imports from Russia (hydrocarbons account for close to 50 per cent of the state budget) (b) to tap into the technological and productive potential of the region to develop its Far East (c) to look for new partners on the global stage due to inherent tensions in ties with the West, and (d) to subtly balance China due to the underlying tensions (apprehensions of China’s rise and assertiveness, IPR infringements and growing Sino-Central Asian engagement) in their bilateral relationship. Russia’s hosting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in 2012 was interpreted as an attempt to project itself as a reliable Asian partner that can meet the defence and energy requirements of countries in the region. Moscow has since tried to step up its energy cooperation, connectivity and defence engagement with Vietnam, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia and the Koreas.

    China’s Response to India’s ‘Look East Policy’
    China’s response to India’s LEP has been a mixed one. Most Chinese scholars believe that India’s policy is aimed at counter-balancing China’s overwhelming presence in the region. China vehemently opposed the PetroVietnam and ONGC Videsh Limited (OVL) joint venture in the South China Sea. On the other hand, President Xi Jinping has invited India to join the APEC forum in the last BRICS Summit. China may be showing its willingness to accommodate Indian interests in the region, but at the same time it would not like to see India emerge as a prominent power in East Asia, an area which Beijing considers its ‘sphere of influence.’

    China’s Response to Russia’s Policy towards the ‘East’
    The Chinese response to Russia’s policy towards the ‘east’ can also at best be described as a mixed one. In response to Gazprom’s deal with Vietnam to explore hydrocarbon reserves in the disputed waters of South China Sea, Beijing had vehemently called on Moscow to terminate all energy explorations in the region. But that did not stop Russia from further strengthening its defence cooperation with Hanoi. This possibly highlights an element of competition between the two strategic partners in Southeast Asia. On the other hand, Beijing has called for a coordinated position with Russia in developing an Asian security architecture. China is aware of Russia’s inherent limitations in providing meaningful assistance to countries in the Asia-Pacific region. Moreover, as the crisis in Ukraine unfolds, Russia may have to seek a far greater understanding with China than it desires. With the US retaining significant leverage over countries that could be a source of high technology and market for Russia (Singapore, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan), Moscow may find it difficult to build meaningful ties with countries of the region.

    For more on Russia’s renewed focus towards the Asia-Pacific region, please refer to the following IDSA publication:

    Rajorshi Roy, “Russia’s Military Modernisation” in S.D. Muni and Vivek Chadha (eds.), Asian Strategic Review, Pentagon Press, New Delhi, 2013.

    Posted on October 07, 2014