India’s journey from Look East to Act East in Southeast Asia

India sets its foot firm on ground to turn ‘Look East’ policy a reality


India’s Look East Policy (LEP) was framed mainly in response to a unipolar world, marked by the end of the Cold War and the demise of USSR. The aim of all governments from the days of Jawaharlal Nehru has been to make India a significant world power and the Look East Policy, officially announced in 1992, was a part of India’s re-assessment of its role in the wider region, and looking at Southeast Asia as a neighbor which mattered politically and economically. India’s foreign policy evolved as a “dual” pattern, encompassing a global as well as a regional role. The two roles were run on a very different basis, as relations with India’s neighbors were conducted on a much more realistic policy course as opposed to the moralistic international policy. In India, an assertive government with thumping majority took the oath of office under the premiership of Narendra Modi on 30th May 2019, and like earlier, it’s the policy of extending multi-lateral relations with countries of Southeast Asia will continue in larger politico-strategic and economic interests of the country. Also in comparison to earlier governments since its coming in 2014, it had acted in a more pro-active way with ASEAN countries and hope to work in future with vigor and zeal to give the People’s Republic of China a retreating position on all counts.

Background of the Policy

India has a long-standing history of engagement with East and Southeast Asia. Its vision of Eastern neighbor was shaped by the strength of India’s geographical proximity, the similarity of historical experiences, cultural identity, economic interests and common strategic concerns in relation to the countries in the vast stretch of geostrategically important Indian Ocean and its economic and strategic significance. In addition, India has a long history of trade and cultural exchanges with East Asia. Trade links with East Asia stretch back to millennia to the Silk Road and Calicut emerging as a significant trading port in South Asia. After Independence, Indians continued to migrate to Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, and Indonesia in search of employment, with the pace picking up from the 1970s onwards. The Indian community constitutes 7.3 percent of Malaysia’s population, five percent of Myanmar’s population and 9.71 percent of Singapore’s population. Politically too, Jawaharlal Nehru said prophetically while addressing the First Asian Relations Conference in April 1947, ‘We are of Asia and the peoples of Asia are nearer and closer to us than others…In the past, her culture flowed to all these countries, and they came to her in many ways. Those contracts are being renewed, and the future is bound to see a closer union between India and Southeast Asia.’

Initiation and working under different governments

Thus, keeping in view the then regional and global context, India in 1991, initiated its new Look East Policy, which marked a strategic shift in India’s perspective of the world. The qualitative and structural changes brought about by the end of the cold war led to the new orientations in the foreign policies of India and countries of Southeast Asia. The new policy was started to enhance economic relations with the ASEAN countries and has reached towards the strategic, political, and institutional linkage. As a result, India moved towards Southeast Asia to build multidimensional ties with these countries. In response, the Southeast Asian countries by leaving all inhibitions of the past came closer to India to develop warm and friendly relations with it. Perhaps, contrary to China, the rise of a democratic pluralist secular India has been viewed by ASEAN and East Asia with more welcoming optimism. China is still trying very hard to enhance its “Soft Power” image in its relationship towards the ASEAN countries, but due to its authoritarian nature and bitter war-torn past, its rise makes them suspicious.

As a result, very soon, a good amount of mutual understanding and trust developed between India and the ASEAN countries. In 1992 India became sectoral dialogue partner with ASEAN and full dialogue partner in 1995. In July 1996, Inder Kumar Gujral, the then Minister of External Affairs attended an ASEAN conference in Indonesia for the first time and expressing the new Indian government’s approval of the policy said, ‘We see the full dialogue partnership with ASEAN as a manifestation of our Look East destiny…India would work with ASEAN as a full dialogue partner to give real meaning and content to the prophecy and promise of the ‘Asian country’ that is about to draw upon us. With gradual development, India-ASEAN relations got a wider dimension toward the end of the 1990s and the beginning of 2000. In 1998, the then Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee intended to accelerate India’s Look East Policy. In the first inning of National Democratic Alliance (NDA) the concept of “external neighborhood” was popularised by Indian leaders such as I.K. Gujral and Jaswant Sinha. After almost a decade of initiation, the policy assumed a more pronounced strategic flavor and expanded to the countries other than ASEAN members like Australia, Japan, and South Korea. Jaswant Sinha heralded the second phase of the Look East Policy in 2003, by saying, ‘The first phase of India’s Look East Policy was ASEAN centered and focused primarily on trade and investment linkages. The new phase of this policy is characterized by an expanded definition of ‘East’ extensively from Australia to East Asia with ASEAN at its aim. Beyond the concept of the immediate neighborhood, there are two other concepts- the countries of East and Northeast Asia are perceived as ‘far eastern neighbors’ while the ASEAN countries as ‘near eastern neighbors.’ Expansion of neighborhood area has served most importantly, India’s economic and security-related interests, especially in post-9/11 periods. Recently, it has assumed a greater economic dimension. Given India’s economic reforms and the attendant efforts to integrate with the regional and global economy, it is but natural that Indian diplomacy, particularly in its relation with ASEAN countries will focus more on economic issues like trade, investment, goods, and services.

Requirements in globalization

Despite this, on the other, things changed rapidly in the early 1990s as India adopted the strategy of globalization and liberalization, the policy-makers of South block started exploring all possible avenues of India’s dream of becoming a regional significant power. From earlier and till date, China has seized the leadership of the Eastern region practically, and even today, India is not in a position to deter Beijing in any of its sinister design against New Delhi. In the context, India’s Look East Policy has been more reactive to what China has been doing in the region than a proactive one attempting to make a distinct Indian mark and “getting others to want what you want.” Undoubtedly, the region now looks towards India because of its potential as an economic powerhouse and partly to balance China’s overwhelming financial and strategic influence, in comparison to the economy. India’s role in the security and strategic aspects of Southeast and East Asia is still quite marginal. Observers of India’s Look East policy have found the conspicuous absence of a strategic vision of a future Asia-Pacific, that can inform its policies and actions in the coming years and its will to establish its rightful place in the Asian balance of power. If India has to emerge as a significant power in the Asia-Pacific, it has to have not only a vision of its economic future but also a vision of its future strategic role in the region. India’s hesitation in taking a more open and assertive role is informed not only by its limits of military and economic power but also by its intent to avoid a confrontation with China which considers Southeast Asia as its sphere of influence.

Spheres of wider co-operation

Another area India can make an impact in is in the field of higher education. During his visit to Indonesia in April 2005, commemorating the Bandung Conference, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh declared that India intended to stay engaged by sharing experiences gained from our development process-with nations in Asia. He said on occasion, ‘Human resource development holds the key to employment and wealth creation, particularly in this age of globalization. This has been our strategy, and we have laid particular emphasis on training and skills development as we globalize.51 In the region, Indonesia has been one of the prominent beneficiaries of Indian technical cooperation programs meant for fellow developing countries. Everywhere in Asia, there is higher demand among the younger generation to learn English, the language of globalization. Myanmar and the two least developed countries of the region Indochina, Cambodia and Laos, can benefit from India’s abundant English language teachers, who could help those countries at much less expensive than the British or Australians.

In line, India has a lead in information technology, and Indian IITs and IIMs have a very high reputation in those countries. Many Southeast Asians have expressed their interest not only to come and study in these institutions but also open their campuses in their countries, particularly in Indonesia. The success of Indian companies like Infosys Technologies and Wipro Technologies in the Information Technology sector, the success of other multinational companies like the Tata Group and Reliance Group; and the worldwide recognition of the academic excellence in training and research have contributed to the new image of India as a country with English educated, enterprising people.

However, to develop and strengthen India’s multi-dimensional relations with the countries of Southeast Asia much more is left to be done. India’s soft power can be increased by augmenting funding for cultural activities, promotion of tourism as a means of people to people contact, presentation of Islamic cultural heritage and monuments before the Muslims of Indonesia and Malaysia. At the juncture, India needs to give its Look East Policy a more vigorous soft power thrust by initiating an innovative political and cultural charm offensive to give added substance to shed a different, positive light on India’s foreign policy.

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