While India’s “Act East” Policy may seem a world away from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the war has implications for New Delhi’s eastward engagement. This comes amid renewed pressure on India’s longstanding proclivity for non-alignment and strategic autonomy in its foreign policy. There were already signs that New Delhi was pivoting away from this approach following the clash with the Chinese military in the Galwan Valley in June 2020. Notably, the recent conclusion of a contract with the Philippines for the export of the BrahMos supersonic cruise missile signals an effort by India to take a more assertive posture in the region by supporting the Philippines in strengthening its coastal defense capabilities in the face of the persistent Chinese threat in the South China Sea.
However, while non-alignment is losing relevance for India in the context of the China-U.S. face-off (as New Delhi leans toward Washington and away from Beijing), it still remains a key component of its positioning in the Russia-U.S. relationship. Russia’s growing pariah status will apply pressure on New Delhi, forcing it to make difficult choices. India’s Act East Policy will be a key test of this.
In theory, renewed tensions between Russia and the West should suit India’s worldview, as the concept of non-alignment was developed during the Cold War as a means for New Delhi to maintain strategic flexibility across the ideological divide. In reality, non-alignment usually entailed New Delhi leaning to one side, as was the case during the 1962 war with China, when India turned to the United States for support, and ahead of the 1971 war with Pakistan, when India and the Soviet Union sealed their Treaty of Peace, Friendship, and Cooperation.
However, New Delhi’s rapprochement with Washington in the post-Cold War period makes it increasingly untenable for India to maintain close relations with both Russia and the United States as relations deteriorate between both countries. The situation is further complicated by the growing alignment between China and Russia. Despite China and India (along with the UAE) abstaining in the U.N Security Council vote condemning Russia’s actions in Ukraine, this should not be seen as anything more than a temporary alignment between Beijing and New Delhi.
While New Delhi shares Beijing and Moscow’s proclivity for a multipolar world order, if forced to make a choice, India prefers a U.S.-led world order to one led by China. New Delhi prefers SWIFT to the Chinese-developed CIPS (Cross-Border Interbank Payment System); the U.S. GPS to China’s BeiDou satellite navigation system; and U.S. Freedom of Navigation patrols in the Indo-Pacific to the South China Sea becoming a “Chinese lake.” (Of course, India is also making efforts to develop its own indigenous alternatives to the U.S.- and Chinese-led systems.)
So far, India has managed to straddle this divide. For instance, New Delhi is a member of regional initiatives with both the United States (e.g. the Quad) and Russia/China (e.g. the Shanghai Cooperation Organization). However, in the context of India’s deepening relations with the United States, difficult relations with China, and Russia’s growing pariah status, India will be increasingly seen as the odd man out in the Russia-China-India trilateral relationship.
Moreover, while India is developing mechanisms to maintain engagement with Russia, it will be increasingly vulnerable to Western pressures. Even China, with its far larger pool of economic resources, cannot develop a credible alternative to the SWIFT international payments system. Even before Russia’s most recent military actions in Ukraine, India’s non-aligned posture was already under pressure as noted by the prospect of U.S. sanctions over Russia’s sale of the S-400 air defense system to India. At the same time, New Delhi will be reluctant to completely decouple from Moscow given its overwhelming dependence on Russian military hardware, deep-rooted relations with Moscow, and efforts to deter Russia’s deepening relations with India’s key strategic rivals, China and Pakistan.
Rethinking ‘Act East’
Where does this leave India’s eastward engagement? The Look East Policy (renamed the Act East Policy in 2014) marked the end of its third decade this year. The policy emerged in the aftermath of the Cold War, amid efforts by New Delhi to revive the importance of Southeast Asia (and later East Asia and the broader Indo-Pacific) in India’s foreign policy agenda. This entailed more institutionalized and regular interactions with the region, including efforts to strengthen economic integration, and strategic cooperation (particularly in the maritime domain), as well as people-to-people and cultural engagement.
However, the policy was very much a product of its time, reflecting a quest for newfound interlinkages in the international system following the removal of the structural constraints imposed by the Cold War divide. But as the international system faces renewed bifurcation, there will be questions about the sustainability of the policy.
As Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar noted a speech in 2020:
The contemporary relationship between India and ASEAN [the Association of Southeast Asian Nations] was founded very much in our shared interest in globalization. In Asia at least, the ASEAN were pioneers of that process and helped bring India into it. But as it comes under stress today, we need to go beyond its economic and even social definitions.
India has maintained a long-standing preference for an open and inclusive regional architecture, which explains its support for the ASEAN-led process of regional integration. However, New Delhi is also increasing its membership in more exclusive minilateral regional groupings, such as the Quad (the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue) and the India-Japan-U.S. trilateral. This comes as these initiatives have matured, with more senior leadership participation, while moving beyond a single-issue focus. For instance, the Quad, which has its roots in the maritime domain following the humanitarian response to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, has developed a more broad-based agenda focused on such issues as the COVID-19 pandemic, supply-chain resilience, and climate change.
At the same time, despite New Delhi maintaining an official commitment to the principle of “ASEAN centrality” in the regional architecture, the bifurcation of the international system threatens to weaken this. ASEAN has already been facing criticism amid its actions (or inaction) on key regional developments, including the pandemic, Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea, and the deteriorating political and humanitarian situation in Myanmar. ASEAN is now facing further scrutiny amid its lukewarm response to developments in Ukraine. Moreover, the fact that several ASEAN-led initiatives, including the ASEAN Regional Forum, East Asia Summit, and ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting Plus, are forums where the United States, Russia, and China are all members will make these arenas increasingly irrelevant given the bad blood between these countries.
On the other hand, despite India’s growing participation in plurilateral regional groupings, such as the Quad, New Delhi maintains lines that it is unable or unwilling to cross. A key example of this is India’s absence from U.S.-led Freedom of Navigation patrols in the South China Sea. While opposed to China’s expansive “nine-dash line” claims in the vital waterway, New Delhi is also opposed to Washington’s interpretation of the “innocent passage” principle as enshrined in UNCLOS, with India requiring prior notice from foreign warships entering its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). This became evident in April 2021 when New Delhi voiced opposition to the presence of the USS John Paul Jones inside India’s EEZ.
In this context, there will remain limits on India’s willingness to become more enmeshed in U.S.-led regional initiatives amid New Delhi’s proclivity for non-alignment and strategic autonomy, as well as disagreements over the interpretation of key principles such as freedom of navigation. India’s overwhelming dependence on Russian military hardware will also delay, if not derail, India’s nascent but growing defense exports to Southeast Asia (for example, the BrahMos has been developed as part of a joint venture with Russia). This means that short of a major deterioration in India-China relations, triggered by a full-scale war, India is unlikely to join more institutionalized U.S.-led security arrangements on par with the Five Eyes or AUKUS.
This leaves New Delhi in the unenviable position of becoming potentially sidelined in the regional architecture as a lukewarm supporter of both the open and inclusive ASEAN-led regional initiatives and more exclusive U.S.- and China-led regional groupings, such as the Quad and SCO. This is already apparent in the response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, where India is the odd man out among the Quad group of countries in terms of its punitive actions against Russia. This divergence is likely to grow as the United States calls on its regional allies and partners to do more in the face of China and Russia’s growing assertiveness. This includes stepping up support for smaller states facing pressure from Beijing, such as claimant states to the maritime territorial disputes in the South China Sea, paralleling support for Ukraine and smaller Eastern European states in the face of Russian aggression.
While Russia-U.S. tensions appear to be less relevant in the context of India’s eastward engagement, where the key contest is between the United States and China in the Indo-Pacific, there are clear spillover effects. India has faced longstanding accusations of “sitting on the fence” in the regional architecture. This was a partial catalyst for the renaming of the Look East Policy as the Act East Policy in 2014, which reflected the goal of making it “more pragmatic, action-driven, and result-oriented.” The renewed polarization of the international system threatens to further drive these pressures while leading to a potential marginalization of India within the regional architecture. This comes amid New Delhi’s longstanding proclivity for multi-alignment and strategic autonomy and efforts to maintain robust relations with both Moscow and Washington (although India is not alone in taking such a position). These will be key considerations for New Delhi as it matures the Act East Policy into its next phase.