Backed by defence cooperation agreements with a number of countries, regular top-level political exchanges and a thriving economic interaction, India is emerging as an important player in Southeast Asian affairs, reminiscent of the post-independence era when it was the most active player in this region. It has come a long way since the Cold War days, when most of the then ASEAN countries perceived it to be in the camp of the former Soviet Union. Aside from Vietnam to an extent, there was little political interaction of consequence, strategic links were virtually non-existent and economic bonds inconsequential. Seen against this background, the progress that India has made in cultivating a multi-faceted relationship with ASEAN and its member states is remarkable.
The fact that Indian Prime Minister A B Vajpayee has made the largest number of visits to this regionfour in about two years, visiting eight of the 10 countriesis the clearest political signal India has sent out that it places high premium on its relations with Southeast Asia. In order to underscore the significance of economic aspects, India has also proposed a Free Trade and Investments Area with ASEAN, and the apex body of the private sector, FICCI, has just held the first ever India-ASEAN Business Summit in Delhi and Hyderabad.
Although the antecedents of the Look East policy can be traced back to the mid and late 1980s to allay the fears of the Southeast Asians regarding the modernisation of the Indian Navy, it began to acquire greater significance after reforms were effected in the Indian economy in the early 1990s and the political transformation that occurred as a consequence of the end of the Cold War. It became a multi-pronged approach encompassing political, strategic and economic aspects. It was also intended to forge links with the regional cooperative mechanism, ASEAN.
Since then, India has become a major factor in the political and strategic landscape of Southeast Asia. Politically, India has become not just a dialogue, but also a summit partner of ASEAN along with Japan, China and South Korea, and a member in the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), an influential multilateral framework to address security issues of the Asia Pacific region. India has since signed bilateral defence cooperation agreements with a number of countries, too, such as Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar, which was unthinkable previously.
Economically, Indias trade grew the fastest with Southeast Asia than any other region till the region was hit by the financial crisis. It has begun to pick up once again with the economic rebound in Southeast Asia constituting nearly 17 per cent of Indias total trade. Although India is yet to emerge as a significant trading partner of ASEAN, no one can ignore the potential.
Similarly, from virtually nothing, India now is a top destination for investments from Southeast Asia. Though a few high-profile projects failed to take off, the Tata-Singapore Airlines joint venture, for instance, there are a number of others that are thriving, the Singapore built technology park in Bangalore being a good example.
Now the question is where is this Look East policy headed and what should India do to keep up the tempo For that, it is important to keep in mind the remarkable changes that are sweeping across the Asia Pacific region in general and Southeast Asia in particular. It is fine to establish linkages with ASEAN, but that is no guarantee that Indias relations with Southeast Asia will automatically improve correspondingly. ASEAN has been going through a crisis and there is a general perception that its ability to influence developments in the region is waning. Hence, many members are beginning to look beyond ASEAN. Indias importance has gone up as a result and that gives enormous political and economic leeway to India.
Never before in history has China loomed as large as it is looming today and its growing influence in Southeast Asia as an economy giant rivalling Japan and as a great power politically is causing considerable consternation across the entire region. Japan seems to be redoubling its efforts to become a normal state and there is a clear shift of focus by the US away from Europe towards Asia. The political scenario is likely to be extremely complex in the coming years. Hence, strong bilateral relations with select countries become imperative and they have to be based on multiple levels with a judicious mix of political, strategic and economic aspects.
Dr Naidu, a research fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, specialises in Asia Pacific affairs.