The popular observation that India’s refusal to join RCEP amounts to a geopolitical blunder overlooks the very distinct possibility that this probably wasn’t a mistake at all, but a preplanned move to justify the country’s ongoing pro-American pivot, albeit at the expense of its regional influence though with the added “benefit” of becoming the US’ strategic beachhead in the South Eurasian Rimland.
The globally renowned Japanese financial newspaper Nikkei published a thought-provoking analysis on India’s refusal to join RCEP earlier this week. “India makes historic blunder in abandoning RCEP trade deal“, written by James Crabtree, an associate professor in practice at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore and author of “The Billionaire Raj”, made the case that the country surrendered its regional influence in ASEAN to China by capitulating to intense public opposition against the deal which he says wouldn’t have made much of a difference anyhow had it entered into practice since “it is shallow in its ambition, acting mostly to tidy up existing bilateral agreements.” In his opinion, “Modi’s decision makes China the overwhelmingly dominant voice in a new deal” and “sends alarming signals about India’s commitment to both trade and domestic economic reform more broadly.” All of this is true, but it misses the point that this probably wasn’t a mistake at all, but a preplanned move to justify the country’s ongoing pro-American pivot.
Debunking The Economic “Balancing” Narrative
The argument can be made that it would have “been better” from an American perspective for India to “balance” China within the bloc, during which time it could seek to expand its influence in ASEAN together with Japan through their joint “Asia-Africa Growth Corridor” (AAGC) in order to provide a credible alternative to Beijing’s Belt & Road Initiative (BRI). That viewpoint, however “theoretically sound” it may be, fails to take into account the reality that neither India, Japan, nor their combined economic potentials are capable of competing with China, and that the ASEAN states’ decision to go ahead with RCEP without India’s participation as a so-called “counterbalance” proves that they’re keenly aware of this and would rather “bandwagon” with China than “balance” against it.