The synergy between India’s Act East Policy and Indo-Pacific Strategy with Japan, South Korea and Taiwan

The Eighteenth Lok Sabha (Lower House of Parliament) of India concluded on June 4 2024, with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) scored 240 seats- short of 32 from making a majoritarian government. This election manifested the revival of the Indian coalition governance, currently led by the National Democratic Alliance. 

Zooming into India’s foreign policy, during the last decade, India under the majoritarian BJP government has done a great deal to streamline the narrative of India being a “leading power”. From strengthening its relations with the United States and its allies, standing firm against Chinese claims followed by border intrusion and its commitment and regular engagement with various multilateral organisations, India has been actively pursuing its foreign policy, which has been recognised across the globe. Given the growth that India has witnessed on the grounds of global engagement, there is a shortage of possibility in backtracking from the progress that has been made in the past decade, irrespective of India being currently led by a coalition government. Furthermore, the changes in the global strategic environment, the advent of a multipolar world order and complex interdependence are some critical factors India will continue to leverage cautiously. 

Narrowing the focus to India’s relationship with the East Asian region, India and Japan share a robust bilateral relationship, which is the lynchpin for a peaceful, secure, and prosperous Indo-Pacific. From being India’s second-largest trading partner from East Asia to engaging with Japan on multilateral platforms like QUAD, G-20, etc., India and Japan’s relations have achieved new heights in recent times. The India-Japan Special Global and Strategic Partnership is already in its 10th year. Moreover, Japan and India have jointly collaborated on a range of projects at both national and international levels. Among a range of projects, investments and agreements such as Japan-India Comprehensive Industrial Partnership, India-Japan Digital Partnership and Start-Up Hubs, Japan-India Clean Energy Partnership (JICEP), India-Japan Act East Forum, Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA), Overseas Development Aid for the infrastructure development of North-Eastern region of India, Mumbai-Ahmedabad High-Speed Rail Project etc., are some of the recent ones. Furthermore, there is a synergy between India’s Indo-Pacific Ocean Initiative (IPOI) and Japan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific Vision. In March 2023, Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida disclosed a new “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” plan at the Indian Council of World Affairs, a think tank in India. The clear-cut subtitle of this plan, “Together with India, as an indispensable partner”, has marked not only India’s importance but also Japan and India’s cooperation as the fulcrum in the Indo-Pacific region. This collaboration holds immense value at this crucial juncture of the changing order of international politics and the challenges emanating from the same. Recently, the bilateral meeting between the countries’ prime ministers, which took place along the sidelines of the G-7 Summit in Italy, emphasised working on the existing areas of cooperation that underlie the existing political and strategic trust between both countries. 

In the case of India’s relationship with South Korea, there is a common merging point in their interests regarding freedom of navigation in the maritime space of the South China Sea and Indo-Pacific at large. The Indo-Pacific discourse has brought a new discourse between India and South Korea, as the concept frames the relationship in a single integrated strategic space.

Additionally, India’s Act East Policy (AEP) of 2014 has broadened the area of engagement with the countries of the Indo-Pacific region by adding a dimension of strategic cooperation. When closely examined, India and South Korea’s relations have taken a new turn due to external factors like the ongoing rivalry between the US and China. 

India and South Korea’s relations were upgraded to a Special Strategic Partnership in 2015 from a Strategic Partnership in 2010. There is a convergence of interest between India’s AEP and South Korea’s “New Southern Policy”. The synergy between the two countries is also driven by South Korea’s economic diversification efforts to reduce Seoul’s dependence on China and to diversify its diplomatic horizon beyond Northeast Asia. The negotiations over the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) expansion between New Delhi and Seoul will likely be concluded in 2024. In 2021-22, total bilateral trade between India and South Korea was over US$ 27 billion, which was higher than that of Japan (US$ 22 billion). 

South Korea’s endorsement of the Indo-Pacific strategy is a recent development. Earlier, Seoul’s apprehensions about the Indo-Pacific strategy were centred on the risk of getting trapped in the ongoing US-China rivalry and China’s hegemonic behaviour in the region. However, under President Yoon Suk Yeol, South Korea finally unveiled the “Strategy for a Free, Peaceful and Prosperous Indo-Pacific Region”  in November 2022. This move has removed one of the bottlenecks of strategic cooperation between India and South Korea. 

Regarding Taiwan, India’s growing cooperation with Taipei is also guided by altering the geo-strategic environment. The deterioration of India-China relations also coincided with the growing tensions between Washington and Beijing. After the Galwan incident, India has continued to inch closer to Taipei on the grounds of commercial engagement and military ties. India has not yet established diplomatic relations with Taiwan as India recognises the People’s Republic of China and continues to adhere to the “One China Policy”. India and Taiwan also have greater prospects of engagement in the area of technology. However, when it comes to India’s support of Taiwan’s issue, one has to be mindful of the current state of India and China’s rivalry, which has lately shown signs of intractability. Secondly, India-Taiwan relations have not evolved to a stage where India can commit to taking sides over the Taiwan issue. With the ongoing concerns over the China threat, which remains a latent impending aspect of India’s strategic calculus, India might rethink its role in a potential Chinese invasion of Taiwan.

Nevertheless, Taiwan’s diversification of diplomatic relations through its “New Southbound Policy” (NSP) seeks to expand its market, reduce overdependence on China and reach out to the countries of South, Southeast and Oceania.  There is a unity between Taiwan’s NSP and India’s AEP, as it is most apparent in economic cooperation, trade and investment. While India’s AEP indeed focuses on enhancing India’s strategic advantage, it also places a considerable emphasis on deepening India’s economic ties with the broader Indo-Pacific region. Similarly, Taiwan’s NSP places a renewed importance on economic cooperation through investment by Taiwanese companies and FDI. In 2018, India and Taiwan signed and upgraded their Bilateral Investment Agreement and Mutual Recognition of the Respective Authorized Economic Operation Program, which covers not only direct investment between India and Taiwan but also indirect investment via a third location compared comparison to Japan and South Korea, India’ relation with Taiwan has not reached its true potential. Factors such as the absence of an FTA between India and Taiwan, India’s One China Policy, and the lack of Taiwan’s involvement in multilateral organisations limit India’s interaction and participation with Taiwan in essential areas like defence and strategic cooperation. Furthermore, cooperation in AEP and NSP can be possible, but the China factor constrains both parties. 

Recently, China’s adverse reaction to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s remarks on the congratulatory message from Taiwan’s President Lai-Ching-te on his election victory is one such instance. 

There is no qualm that India’s relations with these three East Asian countries will continue to thrive but at different incomparable scales. A range of factors will act as catalysts in their diplomatic relations. India’s incessant diplomatic outreach and cooperation through both bilateral and multilateral platforms, external strategic environment and their respective threat perception towards China are some factors that will frame the contours of India’s relations with Japan, South Korea and Taiwan in the coming times.

[Photo of Hari Mangayil, via Wikimedia Commons]

Shruti Dey is a research scholar from the Department of Politics and International Studies at Pondicherry University, India. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

How Strategic Autonomy Played a Central Role in Modi’s Russia Visit?

During the Cold War days, India was the vanguard of the non-aligned movement—a neutral position in the ideological conflict of the superpowers. Neither the...

Rohingya Tragedy: Human Values ​​Must Be Above All

There is no suffering more painful than when humanity is ignored, as experienced by the Rohingya. This tragedy is a clear example of neglect...

India’s Multi-alignment Policy and Its Response to the Ukrainian War

India’s foreign policy under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi firmly stands on the premise that it can serve the country’s national interest...