“India’s Look East Policy is not merely an external economic policy, it is also a strategic shift in India’s vision of the world and India’s place in the evolving global economy. Most of all it is about reaching out to our civilisational neighbours in South East Asia and East Asia”-- Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh
In many ways the post Cold War external environment of a globalizing world, without rival political alliances, gave India the opportunity to improve relations with all major powers. This was the time (1991), when India launched its Look East Policy. This also coincided with the period when India had launched her economic liberalization reforms.
With India’s obsession towards Pakistan and with its preoccupations with China, the South East Asian region did not figure much in its foreign policy till the early 90s. South East Asia was a growing market with countries like Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia. China had already entrenched itself deeply in most of these countries over a period of time. Though some analysts pointed out that by launching this policy India was trying to balance China’s influence in this region, India had often reiterated that it was not competing with China in any manner. India had to go beyond the confines of SAARC if it had to reap the benefits out of the economic potential of the South East Asian region and establish itself as a regional power.
Highlights and Shortcomings of the Look East Policy
· Organizing “Milan”—a congregation of navies organized by the Indian Navy biennially since 1995 in Port Blair involving social and professional interactions, including combined exercises. In 2008 11 Navies including Australia participated.
· Becoming a member of the ASEAN Regional Forum(ARF)—1996.
· Completion of the 160 Km India-Myanmar Friendship road from Tamu to Kalemyo to Kaletwa built by the Border Roads Organisation—2001
· Becoming a summit level partner of ASEAN—2002.
· Entering into a Framework Agreement on Comprehensive Economic Cooperation (for establishing a FTA in a time frame of 10 years)—2003. Similar FTAs have been entered into with some ASEAN nations independently
· Acceding to The Treaty of Amity and Cooperation on which ASEAN was formed in (1967)—2003.
· Becoming a founding member of EAS—2005.
· South East Asia was the focus in the India International Trade Fair (IITF) in 2005 which happened to be the Silver Jubilee of the fair. Companies from Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam and Thailand took part in the fair.
· Under the open skies policy, today, there are over 215 direct flights every week between India and Singapore, 115 with Thailand and 50 with Malaysia.
· Finalising the Kaladan Multimodal Transport project in 2009 especially in the context of Bangladesh being reluctant to allow transit facilities. By this the port of Sittwe in Myanmar (250 Km from Mizoram border)will be connected to the Indian ports and Kaletwa (Myanmar)will be linked with the National Highway 54 at Nalkawn in Mizoram
· Appointing an Ambassador to ASEAN in order to accelerate the growth in the bilateral relations in all spheres of activity
· India still remains outside the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum
· India has entered into a number of pacts, agreements and FTAs with nations of ASEAN but its record for implementation of such accords has been poor.. The Indian industry has doubts about its own competitive efficiency or it does not want competition at home or it is scared of cheaper exports to India from these countries.
· India lags behind China and Japan in almost all spheres of Pan East Asian cooperation, East Asian observers reckon that India has so far appeared less proactive than China on some critical issues.
· Some analysts feel that India’s Look East Policy lacks a strategic vision despite seeking defense cooperation with some ASEAN nations (Myanmar, Indonesia and Vietnam) and securing a role for joint patrolling in the Malacca Straits. India does not take an assertive role perhaps due to it limited military capability
· There are some domestic political compulsions which impinge on the desired reforms and the struggle the liberalization process is undergoing in the “minds of our people”. India has come under harsh criticism for the big negative items list and the delay of over six years in finalizing the ASEAN-India FTA.
India’s objectives in Look East Policy can be furthered through areas—education (human resources development), democracy and culture—where it has a comparative advantage over Asian countries. In this context the Nalanda project which envisages the setting up of an international university is noteworthy.
India has a lead in Information Technology. Many South East Asians are not only interested in our IITs and IIMs but also want campuses opened in places like Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta.
Tourism is an area where much can be done to reverse the trend of more Indians going to South East Asia (Singapore) for shopping. Places of Buddhist interest like, Bodh Gaya, Sarnath and Nalanda and places of Muslim interest like Taj Mahal, Fatehpur Sikri Ajmer, and Hyderabad have to be suitably promoted for establishing people to people contacts.
At the strategic level, India’s Look East policy envisages the ASEAN states and Japan as key partners in East Asia. Ties with South Korea are also strengthening. With India-US relations also expanding in scope and content, India can become a stabilizing and balancing force in this region.
India’s inclusion ab initio into the Group of Twenty Economies (G-20) has boosted its image in this region. Six of the 20 (Australia, China, Japan, India, Indonesia and South Korea) are from East Asia.
The crux is that this Look East policy should reinforce and demonstrate India’s commitment to this region which accounts for about one-third of India’s trade. It should also be made clear that this commitment will not be influenced in any way by the improving relations between India and the US and EU.