India's Interest in Southeast Asia Will Have a Significant Impact on U.S. Strategic Planning

For Release

October 22, 2015

India's core goals for Southeast Asia are in basic harmony with those of the United States, according to a new RAND Corporation study.

India's goals of regional stability, peaceful settlement of territorial disputes and containment of radicalism would simultaneously advance the interests of the United States, democracies in East Asia and Europe, and most of the nations across Southeast Asia, according to the study.

Domestic concerns will likely prevent Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi from implementing his “Act East” policy as rapidly as some might wish, so America should demonstrate strategic patience and willingness to cultivate a long-term relationship with India.

“America should not expect India to enter any sort of alliance, nor join any coalition to balance against China, but instead should demonstrate strategic patience and willingness to cultivate a long-term relationship with India,” said Jonah Blank, the study's lead author and a senior political scientist at RAND, a nonprofit research organization. “This does not indicate an anti-American outlook, but a determination to engage with Southeast Asia at a pace and manner of India's own choosing.”

The report details shared goals between India and the United States, including prevention of any outside power from dominating the politics or economy of the region, negotiated resolutions of territorial disputes such as competing claims in the South China Sea, secure shipping through transit points such as the Strait of Malacca, and the construction of ambitious new land, sea and air infrastructure.

In addition, India and the United States support Myanmar's democratic transition and containment of radicalism in nations such as Indonesia and Malaysia.

While India's policy direction has not shifted radically shifted since the Congress Party government was replaced with a Bharatiya Janata Party administration in May 2014, the change has provided Modi with an unprecedented opportunity to move the decades-old “Look East” policy from rhetoric to reality.

India's interest in Southeast Asia has implications for the U.S. policy of “Asian rebalancing,” as well as for broader U.S.-India relations. Moreover, the report contends, closer engagement between the United States and India on policy toward Southeast Asia could lead to modest burden-sharing and potential cost-savings for the United States.

For U.S. policymakers in the security arena, the challenge in building cooperation with India in Southeast Asia will boil down to several elements. Those include better understanding India's own goals for the region and adopting strategic patience in working at a pace and manner comfortable to India. Other elements are finding specific areas on which to focus attention, such as technology transfer or policy on Myanmar, and moving forward to lay the foundation for future progress.

The report, “Look East, Cross Black Waters: India's Interest in Southeast Asia,” can be found at Other authors of the report are Jennifer D. P. Moroney, Angel Rabasa and Bonny Lin.

The study was conducted for the U.S. Air Force by RAND Project AIR FORCE, a federally funded research and development center for studies and analysis aimed at providing independent policy alternatives for the U.S. Air Force.

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