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India’s ‘Act East’ policy gets attention

The Indian tri-colour flag is, finally, fluttering in the Far East. How firmly it has been planted remains to be seen since bamboo poles give way under strong gusts of wind, but for the present at least, it is there and it is visible as far away as from Beijing. That is the irreducible minimum conveyed by the torrential flow of commentaries in the flag carriers of the Chinese official media. 

If the intention in Delhi has been that Beijing should sit up and take note of “assertive” India, the purpose has been served. The range of Chinese commentaries – People’s Daily, China Daily, Xinhua, China Military – in a space of 48 hours alone testify to it. 
China has taken note of the virtual return of the Indian foreign policy to the mode circa 2006 when the UPA-I under Manmohan Singh coupled India ideologically and politically with the so-called Washington Consensus. The Chinese commentaries examine the Indian motivations and arrive at some empirical conclusions. 
First and foremost, Beijing estimates that no matter the Indian protestations of goodwill, Delhi sees China quintessentially as a rival power and India has a problem in coming to terms with China’s phenomenal rise and its surge by far outstripping India’s growth. 
Second, India is on an unprecedented military build-up. Third, the deployment of BrahMos on the border, in particular, affects the military balance. Four, Indian political elites feel compulsions internally to embark on this path of military build-up. 
Five, India is virtually joining the US’s ‘containment’ strategy by effectively building defence ties with Japan and Vietnam. Six, a series of Indian diplomatic initiatives in the Asia-Pacific in the recent weeks are rooted in a thinking to counterbalance China – and Beijing regards many of them as provocative moves. 
The commentaries have calmly acknowledged that China’s relationship with Pakistan is causing disquiet to India. They have refrained from being specific as to the likely Chinese response to the Indian ‘provocations’ and have chosen to regard India’s military beef-up on the border as more of a political move. They reiterate that the overall orientation of Chinese regional policies will remain as before, which implies that it is for Delhi to choose what sort of relationship it wants with China. 
What next? Certainly, if the intention of the China hands in South Block was to hedge and derive concessions from Beijing at the forthcoming Special Representatives’ meet in Delhi, that may not probably happen. It appears that China intends to “adhere to its established security strategy.” Logically, therefore, Delhi should press the accelerator further on the 6 weeks-old revisionist path to keep provoking China until it sees the logic of accommodating the Indian wish list. Fortunately, the government will face no criticism if the mandarins press the accelerator, since the Indian strategic community has been for long braying for a brawl with China.  
Also, there are many pluses. A good case can be made now for stepping up the arms purchases from the US. In the prevailing dismal intellectual climate, no one debates anymore whether the people want butter or guns. The dalals and fatcats and ex-bureaucrats of the ‘permanent establishment’ will be mighty thrilled. So, conceivably, will be the defence and security establishment. Of course, the US lobbyists will applaud the leadership, too, and that can be quite useful when the regime’s political base is visibly eroding and a change on Raisina Hill might become unavoidable.  
But all good things finally come to an end. At a crucial defining moment in regional security, the plain truth is that India will be meandering. This is not a matter of Sino-Indian relationship alone, as India has important strategic choices to be made, which have long-term implications. India’s relations with a host of regional powers are also involved – Russia, Pakistan, Iran, etc. 
For sure, the country’s interests are best served if the normalization with all neighbors, especially China, is robustly advanced. India would have created much strategic space as a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization rather than being tied by apron strings to the vicissitudes of the Sino-American interdependency and the wild mood swings in the US policies from ‘containment’ to ‘engagement’ of China. As our leaders themselves often say, India lives in its region. 
Besides, what India needs is a single-minded focusing on its internal development for a generation or two so that it can get rid of the abysmal poverty and degradation of life that is the sad fate of most Indians, and emerge as a prosperous country. The militarization of foreign policy is of no use to the half-a-billion Indians who eke out a miserable daily existence. It only helps fill up the American coffers. 
Alas, the mandarins are failing the country. In their sequestered existence, they have become mere time-servers. Hollow men with no convictions or sensitivity. The result is plain to see. One foreign policy course for September, a diametrically opposite course for October and November. The intellectual bankruptcy has never been so glaringly exposed in all these 64 years of independent India.  

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