Shifting Contours of India’s Asian Relations

Published date01 January 2017
Date01 January 2017
Subject MatterArticles
Shifting Contours of
India’s Asian Relations:
Domestic Constraints
Versus International
Jitendra Uttam1
Chanwahn Kim2
This article analyses Asia’s changing structural dynamics impacting India’s rela-
tions with the region, post-Independence. Earlier, liberalism, realism and nation-
alism actively shaped India’s foreign policy choices; however in recent times, a
contradictory processes marked by the emergent domestic constraints originat-
ing from the failure in India’s economic development meets with the unfold-
ing international opportunities due to China’s phenomenal rise and its growing
contestation. This volatile mix of constraints and opportunities forms a paradox
that lies at the core of India’s changing foreign policy behaviour towards Asia.
Theoretically, India has been quick to decipher ‘advantages of being backward’
(Gerschenkron) and use them in a manner that promotes its national inter-
ests. India is trying to counter Beijing promoted ‘economic interdependence’
by US-led ‘political interdependence’. The article argues that China’s economic
ascendancy compare to India’s economic backwardness has unleashed genuine
fear that East Asia is heading to be under China. Consequently, USA, Japan, India
and Australia seem to be inching towards a ‘quadrilateral consensus’ aimed at
resisting Chinese hegemony over Asia. This incremental desire to contest Beijing
has thrown open an international opportunity for India, which is much bigger
than the constraints, imposed by its persistent economic backwardness.
Idealism, realism, nationalism, Sino-Indian, Sino-US and Asian relations
International Studies
54(1–4) 2–21
2018 Jawaharlal Nehru University
SAGE Publications
DOI: 10.1177/0020881718778166
1 Jitendra Uttam, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India.
2 Institute of Indian Studies, Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, Seoul, Korea.
Corresponding author:
Jitendra Uttam Centre for East Asian Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru
University, New Delhi, India.
Uttam and Kim 3
In the post-Independence phase, India’s Asian (Eastern) relations have witnessed
multiple disjunctions causing region’s structural dynamics to change. These far-
reaching changes acted as a catalyst to trigger various twists and turns in India’s
foreign policy thinking. Among the most profound disjunctions, Sino-Indian
border War in 1962 compelled India to abandon ‘Nehruvian idealism’1 in managing
its foreign relations (Deshpande, 2006; Kennedy, 2012). Similarly, emergence
of ideologically charged Cold War politics pressed India to take realist turn
under Indira Gandhi administration reverberating in the outbreak of Indo-Pak
War in 1971, nuclear test in 1974 and the declaration of internal emergency in
1975. In another major development, the dramatic fall of Soviet Union led India
to take refuse in the ‘self-help doctrine’2 (Ganguly & Pardesi, 2009) manifested
in structural economic reform initiatives of 1991, forced entry into nuclear
weapons club in 1998, and closing the gaps in relations with the USA (Waltz, 1979).
In the post-Cold War phase, China’s colossal rise and India’s relative under
development again set in motion the logic of nationalism which got reflection in
country’s ‘Look East’ policy3 (Mitra & Ghosh, 2008; Nanda, 2008) initiated by
Narasimha Rao administration as well as Modi’s ‘Act East’ policy’4 (Kaul &
Chakraborty, 2015). India’s on-going nationalist discourse in the foreign policy
thinking, primarily focuses on leveraging country’s soft-power assets deeply
embedded in its ancient Buddhist-Hindu civilization spread all over East Asia5
(Chandra, 2000; Coedes & Vella, 1968). India’s relative failure in the economic
development has compelled Hindutva nationalists to use soft-power resources
to counter-balance China’s hard power assets based on its remarkable economic
On top of these paradigmatic shifts, a new contradictory process originating
from the clash of ‘domestic constraints’ associated with India’s persistent eco-
nomic backwardness and ‘international opportunities’ brought by China’s aggres-
sive posturing has invited a wide-spread backlash igniting another round of
structural readjustment in India’s relations with Asian neighbours. The volatile
mix of ‘domestic constraints’ and ‘international opportunities’ has created a wider
space for India to manoeuvre its claim to rejoin the lost race for leadership contest
in Asia.6 By using crucial ‘international advantages’ originating from its persistent
economic backwardness, India has been successful in becoming the part of a
loose coalition of powers based on rapidly converging interests to contest Beijing’s
hegemonic ambitions in the region7 (Raja Mohan, 2017). This new regional cal-
culus has given India an opportunity to bounce back in the Asian leadership race
despite Beijing’s explicit displeasure. Though, Asia’s renewed focus towards geo-
political concerns against earlier era geo-economic interests has brought forces of
divergence at the fore.
China’s pole position in the Asian leadership calculus largely derives logic
from the booming intra-regional trade, investment and market as well as its care-
fully crafted diplomacy based on assertions such as ‘peaceful rise’, ‘Asian values’
or ‘Confucian values’ etc. The primacy accorded by China to peace and prosperity
paved the way for continuation in the Chinese hegemony8 (Hill, 2000; Lee, 2003).

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