February 21, 2020
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Discovering The Backyard

Finally, after decades of blinkered vision, India's 'Look East Policy' seeks to forge new ties

Discovering The Backyard
Discovering The Backyard
With Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee visiting Vietnam and Indonesia last week, India's 'Look East Policy' is finally showing signs of acquiring a certain heft that was missing for decades. Hitherto, India's contribution to Asian events had been more through its presence on the map. The lone exception to that static role was in 1947, when the first Afro-Asian conference was held in Delhi. Worse, in the aftermath of the 1962 border conflict, China's shadow loomed over Indian policy-making, clouding any realistic assessment of the 'vague' region that stretched to the East. For most Southeast Asians, anyway, India's foreign policy seemed inextricably tied to the apron strings of the Soviet Union. The result was that till the end of the Cold War, India and Southeast Asia were quite the strangers, passing each other like unfamiliar ships at night.

Now, as India seeks to remedy that situation, the primary task is to assure the region that New Delhi is, at long last, firmly committed to developing enduring relations. In the past, Indian policy-makers failed to foresee the importance of Southeast Asia, so much so that when some members of the proposed asean (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) grouping informally extended feelers to India to join up in the '60s, India declined. The assiduous Indian pursuit of asean (comprising Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore, Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Laos) now contrasts with the earlier dismissive stance, perhaps more so because Southeast Asia is a new growth area.

Vajpayee's choice of wooing Vietnam in this Look East Policy is not without its own significance. Earlier, in February 1979, when Vajpayee was visiting China as foreign minister, and had in fact retreated to the scenic locale of Hang Zhou, China invaded Vietnam. In a show of displeasure, Vajpayee promptly cut short his trip and returned to Delhi. The idea was to show solidarity with Vietnam which itself had invaded Cambodia to overthrow the Pol Pot regime the previous December. After the fall of the Janata government, Indira Gandhi indicated that Delhi would be willing to recognise the new Vietnam-backed government in Cambodia. Opposed to the spread of communism, asean made clear its displeasure over the proposed Indian move. The cruellest cut came in July 1980, when the then foreign minister P.V. Narasimha Rao was travelling in the region to attend an asean conference and explore the possibility of making India a dialogue partner. Rao and the asean members learnt that India had extended recognition to Cambodia. The only other nations which had recognised Cambodia till then were the ussr, Cuba and, obviously, Vietnam. Delhi, thus, at one stroke alienated both China and asean, and Rao had to cut short his trip and return home.

Says G.V.C. Naidu, a Southeast Asia specialist at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (idsa), "Basically, the calculation then was that the gains of recognising Cambodia (because of the Soviet Union) would far outweigh the gains of becoming a dialogue partner of asean. Obviously, an anti-China posture rated higher than engaging asean. This set back ties with asean by a decade." Ironically, India and China will now have to compete for the political affections of the same East Asian countries—what with China and Vietnam recently having resolved their outstanding border disputes, both sea and land. Meanwhile, Beijing has also successfully engaged with asean on the economic front.

Showing signs of waking up from its deep policy slumber, India in the '90s even started to unabashedly court Myanmar, so far dismissed as a satellite of China. Argues Admiral (retd.) Raja Menon, "The overtures we are now making vis-a-vis Southeast Asia was something the naval headquarters first suggested 14 years ago when the cost would have been much less. The mea didn't favour this plan. Policy-wise, Southeast Asia was one giant black hole. Even in 1962, the only Asian leader who really stood by us was Malaysia's Tungku Abdul Rehman, and we snubbed him."

Indeed, Delhi's relations with the region is a saga of missed opportunities. For instance, as Menon points out, Singapore had approached Delhi for three things—anti-submarine warfare training, air-to-air firing ranges and missile test ranges. "We gave them only the first. Australia is doing the rest now. We could have billed them on friendship prices instead of commercial prices. We also lost the hydographic survey contract with Malaysia about six years ago. We could have built our diplomacy and security policy on that. Sadly, we didn't," he laments.

That India continued to ignore the lessons of past mistakes became obvious in the '90s. The Tata-sia (Singapore) airline project and the proposal to build a new airport in Bangalore—for which a consortium of asean and Indian companies made a bid—both fell through. No one in asean doubts that the protracted negotiations and the singularly unspectacular end results have had an adverse impact on the region's perception of India's seriousness about promoting joint ventures and foreign investments among potential investors. Notes a former diplomat, "We are left with small projects in relatively low-priority areas." Explains Naidu, "The major obstacle from the early '70s was the lack of economic links between asean and India. The region liberalised in the early '70s and India did not do so till 20 years later. This led to economic exclusion. Politically also, most asean nations were anti-communist and unreceptive to the Soviet Union, leading to a Cold War strategic divide. Now, red tapism and inadequate liberalisation is the new big alienating factor. Initially, India's baggage with Pakistan (read Kashmir) was also viewed as something that would spill over."

Indeed, to this day, India is excluded from the Asia-Europe Meeting (asem), a dialogue mechanism of asean, as well as from the apec (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation). India's political isolation was such that in 1998, there was no two-way political traffic between New Delhi and the Asian capitals. This meagreness of exchanges was also a result of Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh's obsession with the United States, to the exclusion of almost everything else. Between 1962 and the early 1990s, East Asia was a region a foreign minister or prime minister would visit about once in a decade. The Pokhran tests and the activism of Japan, a major Asian player, and Australia—another important influence in the region, both implacably opposed to India's self-declared nuclearisation—coloured regional perceptions and further soured relations. Japan's preachiness was grating, particularly because it overlooks the presence of nuclear forces in the region and the fact that its security is hypothecated to the American nuclear umbrella.

In 2000, the situation improved. The visits of President Bill Clinton, Australia's foreign minister Alexander Downer and the conciliatory approach of Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori during his stay in New Delhi, served to create a suitable atmosphere in which to engage with the region. Vajpayee's current visit to Vietnam and Indonesia, and the planned trip to Japan and Malaysia next month, would cover most of the key countries in the region. It would still leave Singapore, New Delhi's main backer in the region, as well as Thailand. Says A.N. Ram, former secretary (East) in the mea, "It is too early to say if the new overtures to the region constitute a qualitatively new beginning or more of the same. We have set a target of $15 billion in two-way trade by 2005, and we are nowhere near even the half-way mark. On the investment side, what we are conceding today is what we could have done four years ago. We don't even have an inventory of academics or institutions in Southeast Asia which could evince an interest in India, and neither do they."

Yet, ironically, asean is integral to India's foreign policy. That is where most of the country's geostrategic and economic interests lie. Indeed, the new Look East Policy could now finally provide New Delhi the opportunity to break free from a Pakistan-centred foreign policy.
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