Sanjaya Baru: Looking east again

Last Updated: Sun, Oct 24, 2010 18:50 hrs

Say "neighbouring country" in New Delhi and most think of Pakistan. Down the western coast, many think of Oman, Qatar, Abu Dabhi, Bahrain, even Kenya. When a relative of mine down south chose to run away from home in search of opportunity, he landed up in Penang, naturally! In Malay and Bahasa Indonesia, "baru" means new!

As for a European, for an Indian "neighbourhood" conjures up different geographies. But, despite his roots in western Punjab, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh takes a more catholic and expansive view of the idea of India’s neighbourhood.

Coming out of a summit meeting with leaders of the Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean), Dr Singh once confessed that of all the regional and other summit meetings he usually attends around the world, this was the one group he felt most at home with. He felt at ease sitting with a group of like-minded leaders, modern in their intellectual orientation, focused on development, committed to building knowledge-based societies and economies, self-confident and relaxed in their approach to India.

This week he has the opportunity to once again re-engage the region at an official level and revitalise the business-to-business and people-to-people linkages. Each of the countries that Dr Singh will travel to over the next few weeks — Japan, Malaysia, South Korea and Vietnam — is an important nation, "neighbour" in a civilisational sense, with whom India ought to have deeper and wider social, economic and strategic relations.

India’s "Look-East Policy" was launched by Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao against the background of two major historical factors — the end of the Cold War and the new opportunity to re-engage with countries in the region; and, the new turn in India’s economic policies that enabled this re-engagement. But it has deeper roots, as we know from Jawaharlal Nehru’s Glimpses of World History and his initial outreach to South-east Asia. The Cold War disrupted a nascent re-engagement that was renewed with its end.

The Asian financial crisis of 1997 disrupted the process of re-engagement for a few years. India’s decision to fast-track closer relations with Asean and to launch a free trade agreement helped restore momentum to the relationship. India’s participation in the East Asian Summit further increased high-level interaction with countries of the region.

Yet, after all these years, the process of engagement has moved only in fits and starts, and remains highly skewed. Despite an impressive rise in trade flows in the 1990s, and the signing of a free trade agreement more recently, the past decade has seen stagnation in the overall level of economic intercourse between India and East and South-east Asia.

For regional trade flows to rise, it is imperative that regional investment flows must rise. As two recent Asian Development Bank studies on "Emerging Asian Regionalism" and "Institutions for Regionalism in Asia" (Available at: show, India is inadequately integrated into Asian production networks and value chains. India’s institutional and economic engagement of Asia is still very limited.

Till this underlying fact changes, mere reduction of tariff and non-tariff barriers is not going to make too much of a difference. India was also slow to participate in regional financial integration, having remained outside the Chiang Mai Initiative and its subsequent multilateralisation.

The weakness of these trade and investment flows brings into sharper relief the power imbalance in the region and India’s handicap against the speed of China’s rise and the range of its engagement of Asia. Ironically, however, while China’s speedy rise initially placed India on the back foot, China’s new assertiveness has encouraged countries in the region, from Japan and South Korea in the north-east to Malaysia and Indonesia, all plural democracies, to view India more favourably.

Consequently, in the past two years we have seen an acceleration of India’s political and strategic engagement with Japan, Korea and the Asean nations. If the South Korean president was the chief guest at the 2010 Republic Day parade, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono will be the chief guest in January 2011. India’s defence cooperation with Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, Vietnam and even Malaysia has been stepped up in recent months, adding political and strategic ballast to the economic relationship.

All this, however, is not enough. India has to increase its share of the mind space of thinking people in Asia to its east. A much greater diplomatic and people-to-people effort has to be launched to strengthen the foundations of the new edifice. It is a shame, for example, that India has more diplomats in Europe and more scholars and businessmen travelling West, than in East and South-east Asian Capitals. India does not have a full time ambassador to Asean, the job still being done on a part-time basis.

What is distressing is that the nascent interest in India in the think tanks and academic institutions of East and South-east Asia is beginning to wear thin. This must be reversed.

India’s Look-East Policy must get out of official speeches and research papers and take root in corporate boardrooms and educational institutions. India’s prosperous middle class has to yet rediscover the ancient ties that bind it to countries like Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam. Equally, young people in East and South-east Asia, mesmerised by China’s spectacular rise, are yet to be enthused by today’s India.

For this to happen, the Look-East Policy must cease to be just official policy and transform into a popular movement, touching public sentiment. Prime Minister Singh must strike that chord in his travels to the East this month and return home to strengthen the sinews of a civilisational relationship.

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