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India Forges Better Ties With East Asia

Monday, September 17th, 2012

With recent sweeping changes in the world order, the role of India has increasingly come under the arch lights. While one view point is that India will continue to play a regional role as the United States and China grapple for the centre of global power, there are also views that India could well emerge under from under the dragon’s and eagle’s shadows to create another new world order.

One of the significant strategies that today might allow India to become a super power includes a fundamental shift that took place in the mid-nineties when India paused its ‘Look-US’ policies and instead turned east. The fledging relationships of a decade ago have now matured to ensure India is at a strategic ‘pole vault’ position that will help in establishing itself within the older regional structures and help in forging new balances as well.

India’s Historical Ties

India’s ties with East Asian countries have largely been dictated by its relationship with China. Traditionally, and especially after the Sino-Indian in 1962, India and China had been competing neighbors. When China moved from an expansionist mode to a more competitive economic superpower mode, India was slow on the catch-up. China’s greater geographic vastness has also contributed to its greater presence in most regional economic forums and blocs across the Asia-Pacific.

India’s catching-up phase with China began during the early 1990’s when the then Prime Minister Narasimha Rao (1991-96) endorsed what soon came to be known as the ‘Look East Policy’.

Fortunately, his successors Shri. Atal Bihari Vajpayee (1998-2004) and Shri. Manmohan Singh, have continued to contribute towards building stronger and economic growth by encouraging policies with Easter countries.

Burmese Overture Begins Look East Policy

Perhaps the most significant change that showed that India was adopting a more pragmatic approach to finally don the role, soon to be thrust upon her as a future super power, was the softening of its stand against the Burmese junta, with its pronon-alignment and deep support to apartheid movement. India in the late 1980s had continued to oppose Burmese militia domination of the country. However, with a strategic shift in its policies, India now plays key roles in economic and commercial activities in Burma through its state oil and industrial corporations, along with training Burmese personnel in controlling the drug cartels breaking into India’s North East frontier-states.

India Bonds with East Asian Islands

Soon India moved to capturing commercial, economic as well as military bases in Singapore, the Philippines, Cambodia as well as Vietnam. India quickly reconciled its on-going relations with Sri Lanka with Free Trade Agreements and improved its military relations with Thailand as well. While the bulk of India’s relationships with East Asian neighbors has been based on trade associations, it has also built a strong platform for itself as a pro-democratic nation and has supported and stood by countries which have emphasized human rights as well as democratic values. India is one of the signatories to ASEAN’s Treaty of Amity and Co-operation in Southeast Asia in 2003.

India Trade and Economic Treaties is the Fulcrum of its Relations with Regional States

India has constructed strong free trade agreements and preferential trade agreements with most of its neighboring regional states. It has also sought an active role in the association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN. In fact, the first-ever India-ASEAN Business Summit was held in 2002, in New Delhi.

While analysing and commenting extensively on the emergence of India’s Eastern Policies, Walter C. Ladwig III (Ref.1) has said that, “While India may not traditionally be considered to be a significant actor in the Asia-Pacific region, over the past 18 years, New Delhi has undertaken a concerted effort to direct its foreign, economic, and military policies eastward. What began as economic cooperation with the nations of Southeast Asia has expanded into full-spectrum engagement with the major powers of East Asia.” India has also built extensive multilateral organizations that support the Mekong-Ganga Co-operation, BIMSTEC as well as SAARC.

Role of Asian Partners in Including India in Asia-Pacific Region

Regional players have also supported and initiated India’s role in various associations of the region. When China’s domination in ASEAN+3 became uncontrollable, several countries such as Japan brought India into the equation to create a ASEAN+6 process. Singapore and Indonesia were also very keen on India playing a role in the East Asia Summit. America has also sought India’s active participation in the region and has compelled its membership in the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation.

PM Speaks on South Korean Ties

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, during his recent visit to Korea to attend the Nuclear Security Summit in the last week of March, interacted with the media and said that, “Investment from Korea is a priority for India. We will take pro-active steps to address investor grievances and improve the business climate in the country. Many states of our union have been actively encouraging foreign investment and we will support these efforts. I urge Korean industry to have faith in India.”

His last statement was in the context of the failure of Korean-funded projects such as the POSCO steel Project, where land acquistion from tribals of the region has led to continued start-up delays. Seeking to reassure South Korean investors in India as well as the CEOs gathered at the event, and in an effort to further ties with South Korea, the Prime Minister further commented that, “I recognize that sometimes our processes can be slow but there are effective mechanisms for resolution of problems and differences and a strong rule of law. The government is keen to move forward with the POSCO project and there is some progress in this regard. I believe that India is a stable and profitable long-term investment opportunity.”

Road forward for India’s East Asian relations

Walter C. Ladwig III, commenting on India’s future role in Asia-Pacific, concludes that, “While in the near term India’s presence and influence will be felt most strongly in Southeast Asia, a steadily expanding economy, paired with a growing partnership with key regional actors and an increasingly capable navy, positions the South Asian giant to have an impact on the emerging security architecture of the region”. As a new player in Eastern power equations, India has an extensive role to play as an ‘external balancer’ and the expectations of this role are well-argued by India’s National Security Advisor, Shivshankar Menon. He argues that India’s foreign policy posture needs to be ‘inclusive, comprising all powers — regional and extra-regional — relevant to the practice of Asia’s security. Its geographic scope ought to be extensive, extending from the Suez to the Pacific and seamlessly enfolding the maritime periphery with the rising continental core.”

While concluding the 13th Asian Security Conference in February of last year, Ambassador Shivshankar Menon’s comments offer the exact road map for the role India will play in the region. “Its security structure ought to be plural and open-ended, having learnt its lesson from past collective security failures. Finally, its institutional mechanisms ought to be consultative and non-prescriptive, respectful of the region’s preference for consensus-based approaches to problem solving, and centred in that crossroads of Asian inter-civilization interaction, Southeast Asia.”

India will aim to become an ‘enabling power’ in the region and seek to follow a consensual regional structure that will seek regionally ‘dominant entities’ to act with restraint in discharging their relations within the region. India’s policy will be an ‘engaged power’ as well, so as to encourage the growth of the entire region as a whole. India will continue to be pluralistic power by ‘facilitating the involvement of the widest spectrum of participants in the region’s endeavours, and eschewing exclusivist multilateral constructs (particularly in the area of non-traditional security)’. As a “stabilising power it can prepare to use its considerable security capabilities to help resist revisionism and maintain a more stable equilibrium — a key national interest”.

Analysts such as S. Gupta (Ref. 2) comment that India’s global role in the next decades will follow the path of economic modernization, leading to the building of a conducive environment to provide the right launchpad to achieve its role. At the dawn of the Asian Century, it is imperative that India becomes the enabler and initiaties a role in the global context so that it becomes a game-changer in the region. Reiterating its East Asian foreign policies with partners such as South Korea is indeed the right step forward.

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