Initiation and Working with ASEAN under Different Governments of India


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 with the aim 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.

Partnerships with ASEAN

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.

India’s recent attempt to build closer relations with East Asian countries within the framework of its Look East Policy has been a success in the economic sphere and to some extent in defense fields at multilateral and bilateral levels. Even at political level, beginning with its sectoral dialogue partnership with ASEAN, India graduated first to full dialogue partnership with attendant membership of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), then to mechanism of ASEAN-India Summit, at par with ASEAN plus China, Japan and South Korea and finally to the membership of the East Asian Summit. These interactions have resulted in considerably greater integration with the rest of Asia than is commonly realized. Besides intended to balance China’s influence, it was underscoring India’s emergence as a significant player in the Asia-Pacific region. It was also likely to stem the flow of arms across the Bay of Bengal insurgents in the Northeast, and it also demonstrated the Navy’s ability to operate far from home. At bilateral level too, India has established and strengthened defense-related relations on various aspects with countries of the region and primarily with Singapore, Japan, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Myanmar, Thailand, Philippines, and South Korea.

Developments 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 significant regional 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 major 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.

In promoting India’s strategic objectives, as many analysts believe, its soft power image in the region would be more helpful than its hard military power and P.V. Narasimha Rao, the then Prime Minister of the country, also laid emphasis on India’s historical and cultural relations with the region in a lecture delivered in 1994 at Singapore. He said these relations very old and strong and there was nothing new in India’s looking towards reinforcing cooperative linkages with its Eastern neighbors. India’s soft power image is very high in the countries of Southeast Asia due to their shared heritage and civilization, and they are now called its ‘civilizational neighbors.’ Besides, a democratic tradition of more than six decades, Mahatma Gandhi with his concept of non-violence and peaceful conflict mediation as a national hero and India’s long engagement in multilateral institutions are indicators that seem to qualify as one of the leading soft powers of the twenty-first century. Internationally, the way the Indian Navy helped in Operation Sahayaata and Operation Sadbhavana in post-Tsunami and post-Lebanon crisis in 2004-05 and 2006 respectively earned the goodwill of the people of East Asia and PIOs of Lebanon. This altruistic humanitarian assistance giver image is vital for India to promote its soft-power with a robust demonstration of its hard or military power.

Prospects of future Cooperation

Another area India can make an impact 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 multidimensional 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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