Foreign PolicyForeign Policy

India is becoming a power in Southeast Asia

By Derek Grossman

07 Jul 2023 · 8 min read

informed Summary

  1. India is emerging as a strategic player in Southeast Asia, strengthening its defense partnerships with Vietnam, the Philippines, and Indonesia. This comes in response to China’s aggressive stance in the South China Sea.

The moment has been long in coming, but India is turning into a strategic actor in Southeast Asia. Amid a flurry of regional diplomacy, India has sealed an arms deal with Vietnam, sided with the Philippines over China on sovereignty disputes in the South China Sea, and enhanced defense cooperation with Indonesia. It is balance-of-power politics worthy of an international relations textbook: Even though most Southeast Asian governments have long made it their mantra not to choose geopolitical sides, China’s aggressive posture in and around the South China Sea is driving India and its partners in the region together. As yet, none of these relationships are on the level of alliances or include a serious force deployment component, but the trend is clear. And even though the United States and its Asian treaty allies are not involved, India’s moves raise the tantalizing possibility that it will increasingly complement the United States’ Indo-Pacific strategy to counter China in the coming years.

India’s strategic outreach had its humble beginnings in 1991, when New Delhi announced the Look East policy—a recognition of the geostrategic significance of Southeast Asia to Indian security. More a vision than a concrete set of measures, Look East was followed by the Act East policy in 2014, when India began to proactively engage with the region to prevent it from succumbing to Chinese domination. Under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who first announced Act East, India in recent years has steadily strengthened key partnerships across Southeast Asia, particularly with countries along the maritime rim of the Indo-Pacific. These moves are clearly designed to cooperate with Southeast Asian partners who also seek to maintain the rules-based international order and norms of behavior in the face of rising Chinese assertiveness in the region.

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