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Due Southeast

On the 20th year of its Look East policy, India gears up to woo ASEAN

Due Southeast
Reuters (From Outlook, February 28, 2011)
Due Southeast
outlookindia.com
-0001-11-30T00:00:00+0553

Favourable Winds

  • India-Asean Trade Fair & Business Summit, March 3
  • Delhi Dialogue: India-Asean think-tank members, March 3
  • Visit of the Asean secretary-general to India, March 3-4
  • Foreign ministers of Ganga-Mekong group to meet in New Delhi middle of 2011
  • India to participate in East Asia Summit in Bali in November with US, Russia, China and others
  • India-Asean special Summit in Delhi 2012 to celebrate 20 years of the Look East policy

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For all of 13 years, the Indian navy’s only sail-ship, INS Tarangini, has been mostly utilised for training naval cadets, imparting them with a “sea sense” considered essential for sailing. But later this year, with its betwitchingly quaint sails fluttering, Tarangini will traverse the historical sea-lanes that mariners from India took to conduct trade with Southeast Asia. Tarangini’s journey won’t be a sojourn for cadets, but a new mission to announce to the world that much of the region and its ports were familiar to the kings, scholars and traders of ancient India. Through this symbolical gesture will be asserted India’s rights to engage in the hurly-burly of the region’s geo-politics in the 21st century.

The need to assert India’s rights, and might, arises from the Southeast Asian countries emerging as the new playfield for the Big Powers. It’s here that China is testing the waters to grasp the nature of challenge it could countenance in its quest to dominate the world. And it’s here, therefore, despite being bogged down in Afghanistan and West Asia, that the US has turned its gaze towards, apprehensive that it might otherwise lose the world’s only superpower status. Russia crucially depends on this region to retrieve the lustre of power that was once its. It’s in this area where Japan and South Korea are mulling how not to lose their economic prowess. And should the North Korean crisis exacerbate, the shock waves will be experienced most in Southeast and East Asia. Indeed, it’s easy for a cartographer to pick out the 10 countries constituting ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) from the geographical entity called East Asia, but the reality of international politics and economics deems otherwise.

When INS Tarangini sets sail east, India might be asked: Why won’t its ship venture beyond Southeast Asia? The answer is prosaic—the INS Tarangini’s schedule is one of the many events organised to mark the completion of the 20th year of India’s Look East Policy. A slew of events, from economic to cultural to people-to-people programmes, will culminate next year with an India-ASEAN summit in New Delhi. It will be an unusual sight to have the leaders of all 10 ASEAN countries around the table with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

Really, could it have possible to assemble them in the New Delhi of the late 1980s? The credit for this turnaround goes to the much-underrated P.V. Narasimha Rao, who turned his gaze East even as he took tentative steps to open the Indian economy to foreign players. Economic interest is often the driver of relationships, and as trade relations grew between ASEAN and India, they began to conduct annual summits. Today, the two-way trade between them has touched nearly $50 billion.

Considering the high tide in Indo-US ties, there is a bonding of Indian, ASEAN and American interests.

Yet, this isn’t comparable to the trade relations ASEAN has with China ($293 billion), Japan ($160 billion) and South Korea ($74 billion). Why then is ASEAN courting India? With recession having battered the western economies, and China, Japan and South Korea forging ahead of Asean countries, these tiger economies believe the impulse to fuel their growth could come from India’s relatively new-found thirst for consumption. No wonder then, beginning March, New Delhi will host an India-ASEAN Business Council meeting, an India-Asean trade fair, and a business summit of commerce ministers from 10 countries. Winging his way here then also will be ASEAN’s secretary-general, Surin Pitsuwan, who will have extended parleys with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Their agenda will be to deepen and enhance Indo-ASEAN relations.

Like America, ASEAN’s engagement with India is not only self-interested, but also aims to bolster New Delhi’s ambition ofo becoming a power which will not shy away from playing a role in the region. Why? With China’s unprecedented assertion last year, ASEAN countries feel India’s powerful navy could be a countervailing force. Two other things have happened simultaneously—America has revitalised its traditional ties with many Asean countries and also recognised India’s right to play a role in East Asia. Considering the high tide in Indo-US relations, a coalescing of interests involving Asean countries, America and India has taken place.

Says Latha Reddy, secretary (east), “India is seen as a benevolent power. It’s the multi-faceted role of India that is now being welcomed by the Southeast Asian countries.” Indeed, India’s eminence has several dimensions—it’s among the world leaders in the IT revolution, its scientific prowess is formidable, and the command of its people over English, the globalised world’s lingua franca, is superior to those in asean countries. Lately, it has combated piracy in the high seas, has deftly handled disasters like the tsunami, and overcame the outbreak of pandemics. ASEAN knows it stands to gain in ways other than just economic.

So, it doesn’t surprise to notice in this year’s programme a concerted broadening of asean-India relations. Early in March, a Delhi Dialogue will have intellectuals of the two sides brainstorm. A hundred young farmers from each side will introduce to the other their best agricultural practices, and cultural troupes of ASEAN countries will visit India. Cooperation in IT and education will be other areas of focus. A foreign ministry official says, “Our engagement with countries in East and Southeast Asia is not only economic but also commensurate with India’s growing stature as a major global player.”

As ASEAN and India tango with fervour, they will also have to play hardball at   the East Asia summit, which will see leaders from the US, Russia, China and all the other major Asian countries assemble for a meet. Sources say Manmohan Singh and asean countries will stress on the need for an “open, inclusive and transparent” security architecture for the region. And therein lies a challenge for India: as it welcomes the presence of America and Russia in the region so that no single power dominates, it will have to ensure it doesn’t inadvertently become a part of any alliance to contain China.

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