Look East PolicyLook east policy is the Indian foreign policy started in the year 1991. It was developed by the, then Prime minister of India, P.V. Narasimha Rao. I am of opinion that he was the most underrated PM of India. He also started diplomatic relations with Israel. But that’s a different story, some day I’ll write on that as well. Coming to the Look east policy, it marked a strategic shift in India’s foreign policy. It was meant to build close ties with East and Southeast Asian countries. Look East Policy seeks to build economic & business agreements, strategic & security cooperation, and strengthening historic cultural & ideological relations with East & Southeast Asian countries.
Historically, India has a great influence on Southeast Asia whether it is cultural, social, or religious. The biggest Hindu Temple (or any religious campus) on this planet is not in India, but in Cambodia. AngkorWat, built by Suryavarman II in 12 century is the most prominent proof of Indian influence on Southeast Asian countries. In Indonesia, Bali, Sumatra are still there to tell us about the reach of Indian civilization. Though Indonesia has the largest Muslim population in the world, they follow many Indian customs. In fact, the National Airlines of Indonesia is named after mythological bird Garuda which is mentioned in many Hindu scriptures. (However we can’t use such names because we are so called secular country!) One thing should also be kept in mind that Indians never colonized any country there. Rather we won the heart of the people and made a lasting impact on the mind of the people.
After independence our leaders look towards west for technological and educational tie-ups. And in the west they chose Soviet Union. Though we never joined any military group, we have close ties with Soviet Union and rightly so because of the regional conflicts in South Asia. We need armaments and that also in large numbers, and Soviets were the right people to deal with. But with the fall of Soviet Union, whole scenario changed. This World was no longer a bipolar world. And surprisingly, collapse of Soviet Union coincided with the financial crisis of India. Therefore, India needed partners not only for safety & security but also for business & trade.
On the other side of the coin, Southeast Asian countries also needed India to balance China’s growing influence in the region. In fact USA too wants the same. Recently, when Barack Obama came to India he addressed the Parliament. Commenting on India’s foreign policy with Southeast Asian countries, he said “We want India to not only look east but to engage east.” USA think tank wants to counter China with the help of increasing influence of India. But India never plays in other’s hands. We are a sovereign state, having independent foreign policy. Though some recent developments have made me think otherwise.
Treaties & Agreements
India is the founding member of Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-sectoral Technical & Economic Cooperation [BIMSTEC] in 1997 along with Bangladesh, Myanmar, Srilanka, & Thailand. Later Nepal and Bhutan also joined the group. It is primarily focused on trade & investment, technology, energy, communication & transportation. The important thing is that India is doing things in its typical Indian way. Indian policy is not an Expansion policy like that of China. India is not building relationships to build army or naval base there, but it wants prosperity for all its neighbors including Pakistan. We have a stake there and we can’t afford to have an unstable country in our neighbor.
India is the founding member of East Asia Summit [EAS] founded in 2005. 6 of the 20 members of the G-20 belong to EAS. Indian proposal of establishment (or reestablishment) of Nalanda University in Bihar is also supported by EAS. India has signed Free Trade Agreements [FTA] with many East & Southeast Asian countries. But the crowning glory is FTA with ASEAN. It is the first Multi-lateral agreement signed by India. In 2003 the initial FTA was signed with ASEAN, and it came into effect in 2010.
India is the founding member of Mekong-Ganga Cooperation in 2000, along with Thailand, Burma, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos. It emphasizes on Tourism, Culture, Education, and Transportation. Some time ago there were news of Delhi-Hanoi Rail links & Trans-Asian Highway Network, linking New Delhi to Singapore. But the progress has been slow because of Bureaucratic red tape. To foster Tourism, Indian government has recently announced that tourist from BIMSTEC & SAARC now only have to pay same entry fees to Indian monuments as Indians pay.
Some time ago there was also news of India joining Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation [APEC] but somehow things didn’t work out. In its initial phase, Look East Policy was more concentrated towards Southeast Asian countries. But eventually India strengthens its ties with far eastern countries as well. Japan, South Korea, and Philippines have huge potential for India especially in terms of business. Japanese and South Korean companies are also realizing that India has potential to become the production base for Global market. Japan and South Korea are the major sources of foreign investment in India.
Bi-lateral ties with Myanmar (Burma)
The case of Myanmar (Burma) is unique in Southeast Asia. It has good amount of reserves of Oil & Natural Gas. It is ruled by military junta General Than Shwe. India had initially opposed the military junta, but in 1990s it began making relationship with junta with larger national interest in mind. There was a time when India overtly supported Pro-Democracy movements in Myanmar for many years. We even awarded Aung San Suu Kyi, the pro-democracy leader, with the Jawaharlal Nehru Peace Prize in 1995. But now things have totally changed. China has marked its presence in Myanmar and even developed a naval base there. We can no longer afford that. We have to strike a balance between the principles laid by our founding fathers and the harsh reality lies in front of us. It doesn’t matter whatever USA & western media says about it. And we should not let Barack Obama to give us a lecture about the responsibilities of an emerging country.
Today we can say that the seed sown by the visionary Prime Minister P. V. Narasimha Rao has started giving us fruits. We are now seen as an active leader of Asia. To become a Global power, we need to become a Regional power first. In today’s multi-polar world we cannot remain dependent on one single relationship. Rather we have to build strategic partnerships with all developed and emerging powers. Look East Policy was considered to be more of an economic in nature, but now it has acquired political & ideological dimension as well. I’ll conclude with the words of Prime Minister Dr.Manmohan Singh -
“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.”