India Looks East

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India Looks East

After two decades, India’s “Look East” policy is finally taking shape. But how will China feel about warming ties?

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is often derided by opposition parties as a non-resident Indian because of his frequent travels to foreign shores. Since September, Singh has travelled to Bangladesh, the United States, South Africa, France and Maldives. In the latter of half of November he will be in Indonesia to attend the East Asia summit and may stop over at Singapore on his way back.

But while his travels abroad have attracted much attention, it’s his role as a host in recent weeks that has caught the eye of discerning observers. In the past three months, Singh has received leaders from Afghanistan, Nepal, Burma, Vietnam and Bhutan, taking relations forward with each of them.

With India and China being looked to as potential saviors of the world’s delicate economy, New Delhi’s own focus is now clearly on re-engaging with its near and extended neighborhood. Although India launched its “Look East Policy” over two decades ago, it has only gained momentum within the past few years.  India has renewed its attention to repairing often fractious relations with its neighbors.

Such efforts began with Singh’s breakthrough visit to Bangladesh in September. During the two-day trip, a landmark boundary agreement was clinched after 40 years of complicated negotiations.  Efforts were also made toward a significant pact on water-sharing of common rivers which had fallen through due to domestic opposition in India.

There were several other takeaways. Singh and his Bangladeshi counterpart Sheikh Hasina Wajed clinched an overarching framework agreement that set the parameters for a multi-dimensional engagement. It included, among other items, a transit agreement that allows goods to flow between land-locked Bhutan and Nepal through Indian Territory to the Chittagong Port in Bangladesh. The agreement marks a major step forward as it ties all four adjoining nations together economically.

In an address delivered to Dhaka University, Prime Minister Singh said: “This is in keeping with the philosophy I have always believed that the destinies of the nations of South Asia are interlinked. We must believe in the vision of a shared future of common prosperity and fulfillment. I believe in all sincerity that India will not be able to realize its own destiny without the partnership of its South Asian neighbors. Therefore, establishing relations of friendship and trust with our neighbors, particularly with Bangladesh, and the creation and consolidation of a peaceful and prosperous regional environment in South Asia are the highest priority of our government.”

Singh’s government is lucky that Hasina, daughter of Bangladesh founder Mujibur Rehman, is in power. The Awami League government went out of its way to address India’s security concerns by arresting and handing over several leaders of insurgent groups active in India’s northeast adjoining Bangladesh.  New Delhi is showing its gratitude.

Another relationship that New Delhi has sought to mend in recent months is with Burma.  Burma is often treated as a pariah state by the West, but it’s firmly supported by India’s competitor in Asia, China. Burma President Thein Sein’s visit to India starting October 12 was the first bya civilian head of state in several decades. Thein Sein’s entourage included a large ministerial delegation, which underlined a greater desire to engage India in that country’s development agenda. Burma’s military was also represented in the delegation by the Army’s third most senior general.

Several agreements on strengthening security ties, energy cooperation, and a line of credit worth $500 million dollars were signed as New Delhi acknowledged and praised ongoing efforts at political economic and social reforms in Burma.

Singh and Thein Sein agreed in a joint statement on enhancing effective cooperation and coordination between the security forces of the two countries in tackling the deadly menace of insurgency and terrorism. Since it had lost valuable time because of its antipathy toward engaging the military junta, and thus ceded strategic space to China, India has now made progress to ensure it doesn’t repeat the same mistakes with a changing Burma. New Delhi also appreciated government efforts to reach out to pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. The visit is seen as a breakthrough moment, a point from which India and Burma would like to build upon in coming years and help prevent China from completely dominating Burma’s economic and development agenda.

Nepal, a nation sandwiched between China and India, is responding positively to New Delhi’s efforts to reach out.  The new Prime Minister of Nepal, Baburam Bhattarai, a former underground Maoist leader, made a politically important visit to New Delhi at a time when the peace process is nearing completion after torturous progression. Bhattarai in fact wrote a piece in the Indian newspaper the Hindu, underlining his desire to move closer to New Delhi. In it, he said: “The visit to India is basically directed towards building a better understanding between the two countries and two peoples. In that sense, it is a goodwill visit. My personal thrust would be to have a very free and frank discussion with my counterparts so that we can upgrade the relationship according to contemporary needs. The relations and agreements institutionalized in the 20th century may not be enough to meet the needs of the 21st century. Hence, the emphasis would be to develop our relations further, clear misgivings and misunderstandings that we have against each other, and sort out the problems left by history.”

New Delhi is acutely aware of exactly this feeling among its smaller neighbors and is therefore making very conscious efforts to reach out. But it’s not just immediate neighbors that India is wooing. Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand and South Korea too are firmly on India’s radar. Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang was on a four-day visit to India last month in the immediate aftermath of the standoff between New Delhi and Beijing over an Indian oil firm’s exploration contract in South China Sea. Vietnam, an emerging economy like India, is wary of China’s increasing assertiveness in the region and would like New Delhi to help in strengthening its Navy and Air Force. The Vietnamese president’s delegation signed several bilateral agreements in the fields of energy, education, technology, and homeland security to further strengthen relations.

India looks at Vietnam as a lynchpin in implementing its “Look East Policy” if not as an outright counter-weight to China. This strategy is similar to Beijing’s efforts to use Pakistan as a cat’s paw against India in South Asia.

But it’s not just Vietnam that engages New Delhi’s attention. Indonesia and Thailand are two other nations that are firmly on India’s radar. Manmohan Singh’s decision to attend the East Asia summit in Bali later this month and meet U.S. President Barack Obama there is part of a carefully planned strategy to send subtle signals to China that nations around Beijing’s immediate periphery are India’s partners
as well.

One major indicator of India’s new found desire to woo its Southeast and East Asia neighbors is New Delhi’s deliberate decision to invite leaders from these countries to be chief guests at India’s prestigious Republic Day parade on January 26 each year. While the presidents of South Korea and Indonesia graced the occasion in 2010 and 2011 respectively, India has now invited Thailand’s first female prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, to be the honored at the 2012 parade.

Beijing may not react overtly to these strategic moves by India, which are designed to compete with, if not counter, Chinese influence in Asia.  However, one would imagine a watchful eye is being kept in Beijing on these recent developments.