India: India's "Look East" Policy: A Return to Asia

2007

Rakesh Ahuja

India-Greater East Asia relations have come a long way since Nehru convened the first Asian Relations Conference in New Delhi in 1947. A principal objective was to revive India's millennia-long cultural, political and economic links with Asia, which had atrophied under the weight of pernicious competition between colonising European powers. Nehru made it a point to invite Australia. That prescience foundered in the trenches of Cold War as the United States corralled regional states to contain the "yellow lava". India's leadership of the Non-Aligned Movement and its opposition to US-led regional security architecture (eg, SEATO) effectively closed the door to its east.

The 1991 Look East policy heralded India's contemporary "return to Asia". The then Prime Minister Rao was persuaded by several considerations: the demise of India's geo-strategic underpin, the Soviet Union; the desire to benefit from closer association with economic dynamism of the Asian tigers; and the imperative for India's expanding economy to engage with markets beyond the confines of South Asia.

ASEAN is at its core. India has successfully insinuated itself into the cluster of South East Asian economic and strategic arrangements: the Asian Regional Forum; the ASEAN annual summit process; the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation; the Framework Agreement on Comprehensive Economic Cooperation; and in the (nascent) East Asia Community. The (understated) suspicions of some ASEAN members about China's motives and means in South East Asia offer them an incentive to welcome Indian economic (and maritime) power as a counter-weight. Still, that is no unconditional invitation. In the currently stalled bilateral free-trade negotiations, ASEAN is demanding major economic concessions in return for holding out hopes of strategic gains for India.

India is also actively participating in a web of over twenty trans-Asia arrangements (in varying degrees of development). These include the trilateral dialogue with Moscow and Beijing; the Mekong-Ganges Initiative; the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation; the Boao (Asian Davos) forum; the Bay of Bengal Initiative (BIMSTEC); the Kunming process (India's north eastern states, Yunnan plus); and in the development of trans-continental road and railway networks.

Strengthening relations with leading Asian economies are buttressing India's credentials. Notwithstanding the boundary dispute, China is now India's second largest trading partner (US$40 billion by 2010). Frosty relations with Japan following its uncompromising condemnation of India's 1998 nuclear tests have given way to its dominant role in developing the country's abysmal infrastructure. Singapore, which advocates a "central strategic and economic role" for India in the regional architecture, is a trusted interlocutor on ASEAN-related policies.

Look East has resonated well with the country's domestic economic and political interests in the Asia-Pacific region: expanding export markets, attracting regional expertise in infrastructure, re-orienting western investment from South East Asia in its direction, and establishing a hub for 'soft services'. The affluent Indian diaspora from Myanmar to Fiji is grasping the economic opportunities on offer in its Old Dart.

The Look East policy was formulated as a political instrument to project India into the Asia Pacific region with expectation of economic spin-offs from the then apparently invulnerable South East Asian economies. The paradigm has since reversed. It is now primarily an economic instrument with expectation of political dividends across the international chessboard, ranging from a seat at the UN high table to an influential role in the East Asia Community.

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