Cover: Look East, Cross Black Waters

Look East, Cross Black Waters

India's Interest in Southeast Asia

Published Oct 22, 2015

by Jonah Blank, Jennifer D. P. Moroney, Angel Rabasa, Bonny Lin


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Research Questions

  1. Why Does India's Interest in Southeast Asia Matter to the United States?
  2. What Is India's Strategy Toward Southeast Asia?
  3. How Is India's Strategy Being Implemented in Southeast Asia?
  4. Is Southeast Asia an Arena for Sino-Indian Rivalry?

The global security interests of India and the United States overlap far more than they clash, and this is particularly the case in Southeast Asia. India's core goals for Southeast Asia are all in basic harmony with those of the United States — including regional stability; prevention of any outside nation from dominating the politics or economy of the region; peaceful settlement of territorial disputes such as the South China Sea; secure shipping through the Straits of Malacca and other crucial transit points; increased land, sea and air connectivity infrastructure; Myanmar's democratic transition; and containment of radicalism in states including Indonesia and Malaysia. But America should not expect India to enter any sort of alliance (formal or de facto), nor join any coalition to balance against China. 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 — and a deep caution about precipitating conflict with Beijing. The replacement of a Congress Party government with a Bharatiya Janata Party administration in May 2014 has resulted in a recalibration of India's foreign policy, but not a radical shift in its overall direction. For U.S. policymakers in the security arena, the challenge in building cooperation with India in Southeast Asia will boil down to four elements: (1) understanding India's own goals for the region better, (2) adopting strategic patience in working at a pace and manner comfortable to India, (3) finding specific areas on which to focus attention, such as technology transfer, humanitarian assistance/disaster relief, Andaman and Nicobar Islands, and Myanmar policy, and (4) moving forward, laying the foundation for future progress.

Key Findings

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

  • India's interest in Southeast Asia has implications for U.S. policy of "Asian rebalancing," as well as for broader U.S.-India relations — but mutual interests could lead to modest burden-sharing and potential cost-savings for the United States.

India's Goals for Southeast Asia Are in Concert with U.S. Goals for the Region.

  • India's big-picture goals in Southeast Asia can be encapsulated in three basic mission statements, all of them fully congruent with U.S. strategy: (1) maintain regional stability and prevent any outside power from dominating the region; (2) secure maritime lines of communication and increase connectivity infrastructure for land, sea, and air transportation; and (3) ensure that simmering territorial disputes, including South China Sea claims, are settled peacefully.

The United States Should Not Expect India to Become an "Ally," Nor to Join with the United States in an Anti-China Coalition.

  • India's political culture remains wary of established foreign entanglements, and distrust of the United States runs strong among Indian policymakers. Further, India sees China as only a potential threat, which will diminish its desire to ally with the United States.

The Main Difference Between U.S. and Indian Policy Toward Southeast Asia Lies Not in Direction, but in Pace and Planning

  • Indian policymaking is typically slow by U.S. (and other) standards, and Indian strategy is formed case by case, without an overarching framework. Further, Indian domestic constraints can weigh against policy initiatives.


  • The United States should practice strategic patience — constantly seek to increase its cooperation, but at a pace comfortable to India.
  • The United States should prioritize cooperation with India on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief in Southeast Asia.
  • The United States should streamline the procedures for technology transfer to India.
  • The United States should work with India on a joint strategy for engagement with Myanmar.
  • The United States should help India modernize and expand its military bases on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

Research conducted by

The research reported here was commissioned by the U.S. Air Force's Director of Operational Plans (AF/A5X), Assistant Vice Chief of Staff (AF/CVA), and Deputy Under Secretary for International Affairs (SAF/IA), and conducted within the Strategy and Doctrine Program of RAND Project AIR FORCE.

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