'Looking east' still a major Indian foreign policy

Apr 2, 2012

By Mahendra Ved 

PIVOTAL ROLE: Defence and security issues given greater consideration

Has India’s Look East Policy (LEP) been “Limp East” or “Leap East”?

Its policy planners would argue that they could not compare with or emulate smaller nations like Israel and Singapore. Their challenge was big population and territory, with numerous complexities.

Perceptions changed two decades back. The end of the Cold War and financial crisis at home necessitated economic reforms. LEP, conceptualised by then premier P.V. Narasimha Rao, was the natural corollary.

It was Southeast Asia initially, extended to the Asia-Pacific, in a clear shift in India’s worldview. But not a shift away from the West (Pakistan) and the North (China) that pose security threats and need engaging.

Rao was impressed by the changes since the 1980s in the Asia-Pacific region where Asean nations had the world’s fastest growing economies.

The LEP is actually “India looking east again”, Lalit Mansingh stresses in a book, Two Decades Of LEP”, published by the Indian Council of World Affairs.

He is among the “practitioners of Indian diplomacy” who translated Rao’s ideas into action. Retired now, they log their personal anecdotes and assessments.

Salman Haidar traces LEP’s origin to “an off-the-cuff slogan” adopted to boost the first visit by an Indian premier to South Korea in 1993. Rao had an important mission to Beijing on the way and the Seoul visit could not be allowed to be overshadowed.

It was “Look East”, like “Go East”, adapting Horace Grezy’s “Go West” slogan to American youth in the 1950s, he recalls.

Wonder how ideas and slogans sprout in corridors of power and what they can lead to. Rao’s Seoul sojourn “opened the floodgates” after he met the Korean chaebols or conglomerates. One of them launched the Daewoo car in India within months.

The book is ably edited by Amar Nath Ram, whom Rao recalled from Europe and placed him in charge of the new thrust area as secretary (economic relations). Pushing the LEP has been the principal task of officers in that post.

Haidar says the LEP “continues to play a pivotal role in India’s foreign policy”.

To Professor  S.D. Muni, that it all began in 1992 is a “myth”. Nehru originally “looked east” at the Asian Relations Conference (1946) when he sought to wean away leaders of emerging Asian nations from looking at their mostly Western colonial masters.

To Kanwal Sibal, India-Asean bad vibes were “because of the distortions of the Cold War” that included India’s estrangement with a military-ruled Myanmar, the debacle in the 1962 war with China that “damaged” Nehru’s leadership and India’s “disappointment” at the non-aligned nations of the region “not treating India as the victim of Chinese aggression”. Myanmar, Cambodia, Indonesia and Sri Lanka took the middle course in formulating disengagement proposals.

There is no apology whatsoever for the Myanmar policy, changed from opposing to assisting the military junta, that angered many against India.

Indeed, the analysts assert that:

 a) India has had to secure its northeastern border with Myanmar and Naypyidaw’s cooperation has helped curb militancy; and,

 b) the rising current approval of the changes in Myanmar by the sanctions-imposing nations has vindicated India’s stand against sanctions.

Shyam Saran, who was the envoy to Myanmar in the late 1990s, is highly critical of the opportunities India has ignored and lost, not just with Myanmar but much of Southeast Asia. He warns: “We miss this opportunity at our peril.”

On India being a counterpoise to China in Asia-Pacific, Haidar says originally LEP never carried that proposition. Ram stresses that from Rao onwards, none of the premiers saw India as competing with China. Yet, the LEP cannot “fail to factor the growing Chinese assertiveness and advances” in Southeast Asia.

Sudhir Devare views the LEP as “both an opportunity and challenge for India in shaping the security architecture of the region”.

Sibal cautions that Asean would “favour a better equilibrium between the role of India and China in the region, but not any destabilising rivalry between the two that will disturb its peace”.

Mansingh says the current LEP phase is definitely shifting to defence and security.

“Today, India is confident that Asean will be effective in maintaining an equitable strategic balance while perceiving regional rivalries from destabilising the region.”

Vijay Sakhuja advocates an institutional approach to LEP with projects that would ensure regional stability and build mutual trust. He foresees more illegal migration and suggests coordination among the navies in the humanitarian spectrum.

It takes two to tango. In its eastward reach India has many partners. It can tango with all of them.

mahendraved07@gmail.com

Source: New Strait Times, 2 April 2012

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