Author(s): David Brewster
Reviewed by Emilian Kavalski, Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations, University of Western Sydney, Australia.
The growing focus on India’s role in global politics is usually interpreted as a confirmation of the ongoing transformations in the study and practice of international relations. In the wake of the Cold War, commentators began pondering how far Western ideas can/would spread in an environment characterised by “the end of history.” Two decades later, the debate seems to be how far “Asian” ideas will spread. Such shift in perspectives has been prompted not least by the growing prominence of and attention to India in global life. It also draws attention to the nascent international agency of regional powers with global intentions.
David Brewster’s timely account consciously zooms in on these dynamics. Unlike most commentators, Brewster not only considers the discourses and practices of New Delhi’s “great power” ambitions, but also takes the road less travelled by framing India as an “Asia Pacific power.” Brewster is quite explicit that currently India is not a significant player in the Asia Pacific region; however, he argues that if the country is indeed to attain the global prominence that it aspires, it will have to fashion an Asia Pacific agency for itself. And this is precisely what Brewster does – he constructs a veritable account of the content, dynamics, and regional interactions of India as an Asia Pacific power. It has to be stressed from the outset that Brewster’s book is not a figment of scholarly imagination, but the product of a careful assessment of the likely trajectories of the current patterns of India’s foreign policy outlook.
The point of departure for such investigation is the query whether India has “what it takes to become a great power” (p. 1). If one is to follow the narratives of New Delhi’s external relations, the conclusion should be that the country is already a significant player not only in its region, but also in world politics. However, Brewster’s account unpacks such self-aggrandizing rhetoric in search for the capabilities that underwrite New Delhi’s alleged global agency. Yet, he finds very few that can support India’s global ambitions – in other words, while “there are indications of India’s ambitions to build something that might be called a ‘sphere of influence’ there has been little guidance as to what it might look like” (p. 30). In fact, Brewster’s analysis opens up quite presciently with the observation that “many in India perceive an entitlement to international status based on India’s potential rather than actual capabilities” (p. 3). This is a crucial insight which most commentators will be happy to conclude on. However, for Brewster it provides an important platform for assessing the actual potentialities (if one is to paraphrase his terminology) that can support India’s development into a fully-fledged Asia Pacific power.
A key aspect of this project is India’s ability to “de-hyphanate itself from Pakistan” (p. 9). The suggestion here is that in order to attain its great power ambitions, New Delhi’s foreign policy outlook needs to transcend the ramifications of the country’s South Asian location. Such an assessment is premised on a contextual analysis of Indian foreign policy not only as an idea and an ideal, but also of the practices, categories, and logics on which it is premised. Brewster reminds us that India is one of those international actors that did not welcome the end of the Cold War order. In fact, it took the country nearly a decade to overcome its paralyzing strategic uncertainty and to come to terms with the new reality. The claim therefore is that it is the 1998 nuclear tests that demonstrate not only the operationalization of an improved external relations strategy, but also a qualitatively different interpretation both of India’s role in international life and the character of the international system.
This context provides the background for Brewster dissection of New Delhi’s nascent Asia Pacific agency into its constitutive relationships. Not surprisingly, he begins his account with India’s interactions with its two significant others in the region – China and the United States. In this respect, the analysis is very explicit that New Delhi’s desire to become a major player in the Asia Pacific area emanates from its suspicion of China. Brewster is quite emphatic when he indicates that “India is in fact compelled by its great power aspirations to seek to form (limited) balancing relationships with the United States and its allies against China” (p. 24). In other words, it is through the prism of Beijing that the Asia Pacific region attains particular significance in Indian strategic thinking. The investigation demonstrates that the memory and the trauma of the 1962 war still plagues the Sino-Indian relationship.
In this setting, history becomes an important contributing factor to the strategic competition between New Delhi and Beijing. However, Brewster is quick to point that this might not altogether be a negative development for the Asia Pacific region. In particular, he draws attention to the often overlooked proposition that the rivalry between India and China can in fact strengthen the dynamics of regional integration of Southeast Asia. History also plays an important role in New Delhi’s relations with Washington. As Brewster deftly indicates, despite the strategic partnership between the two countries in recent years, India “remains wary of compromising its freedom of action” (p. 49). It is from this perspective that India has begun engaging with the other Asian Pacific countries.
Brewster identifies five distinct relationships in the region: (i) India’s “peer relationship” with Japan (p. 64); (ii) India’s “political partnership” with Vietnam (p. 90); (iii) India’s “strategic partnership” with “archipelagic Southeast Asia” – Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia (p. 102); (iv) India’s “uncertain partnership” with Australia (p. 119); and (v) India’s “maritime security ambitions” in Southeast Asia and the western Pacific ocean (p. 134). All five of these sets of interactions demonstrate different aspects of India’s ambition and potential as an Asia Pacific power. In particular, as Brewster demonstrates, they emphasize New Delhi’s desire for strategic autonomy in global life that acknowledges the country’s international status. Thus, its aspirations in the Asia Pacific region intend to assist the expansion of India’s outreach beyond the geopolitical confines of South Asia.
Regardless of the scope of such potential, Brewster does not appear sanguine about the prospects of India’s emergence as a major player in the Asia Pacific in the near future. As he suggests, “while India’s economic power and influence in the [region] is likely to grow considerably in coming years, it is by no means certain that India will be recognized as a major power of Asia Pacific any time soon” (p. 163). In this respect, India as an Asia Pacific Power makes a valuable contribution to the explanation and understanding of the main features of contemporary Indian foreign policy. The book will likely be appreciated by those interested in the teaching and theorizing the ongoing transformations in global life as a result of Asia’s increasing prominence in the patterns and practices of world affairs. It is expected therefore that Brewster’s account will be of interest to students and scholars of international relations, Asia-Pacific affairs, and security studies.