Two Decades Of India’s Look East Policy – Analysis


By Navrekha Sharma

Twenty years after the words ‘Look East’ were introduced into India’s foreign policy lexicon, a book titled Two decades of India’s Look East Policy: Partnership for Peace, Progress and Prosperity published by Manohar Press under the aegis of ICWA, helpfully explains to the lay reader the genesis of the policy and the course of its evolution over twenty years. Remarkably, this is not an academic work but a collection of contributions from policy practitioners themselves, ie retired members of India’s Foreign Service who have penned their recollections of the time when they were actively involved in executing the Look East Policy either at Headquarters or in various Southeast Asian capitals as Ambassadors. In the 15 odd contributions in the volume, depth and perspective have been added by including a few contributions from academics engaged in the study of India’s foreign policy. The book, just under 260 pages long, is edited and introduced by AN Ram, former Secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs who has also contributed an article of his own based on his experiences as India’s Ambassador to Thailand, and subsequently, as Secretary (East) at HQ and post retirement, member of CSCAP (Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific).


From persons not normally given to publicising their work, such an offering is a rare enough, but to bring it out when the policy in question is still young and yet to run its full course, is unprecedented. These reasons alone should make the book a welcome addition to one’s shelves: however, Two decades of India’s Look East Policy is also to be welcomed for its lucidity and the wealth of information it contains about the workings of an arcane institution which has more often believed in keeping information from the public than sharing it! Having been penned by individuals who spent their professional lives honing the use of words, the contributions are meticulously discrete even as they open windows to the excitement (and heartbreak) involved in the huge task of shifting the parameters of India’s foreign policy for the first time since Non-Alignment.

However, if one may be permitted a critical note, a little more candour and a little less discretion would not have gone amiss! What follows here is a quick account of the broad drift of the book without specific attribution of authorship. Some common critiques will therefore be addressed before offering suggestions.

The articles in the book have been arranged chronologically, starting with the transformation which shook the world in the late 1980s. As the Cold War ended, so did India’s sense of security in a bipolar world. Rajiv Gandhi as PM quickly prioritised normalcy in relations with China and also engaged several countries of Southeast Asia which the Cold War had caused India to neglect or even mildly antagonise (over Vietnam/Kampuchea). In a region where China’s frozen diplomacy of the recent past was rapidly thawing, the most important country from India’s point of view was Myanmar where China’s presence had gained more than a foothold, and with it, that of Pakistan. India’s first impulse for ‘Looking East’ was thus strategic and without any specific economic underpinning: indeed India’s economy until then was largely closed and matters could hardly be otherwise.

In the early 1990s, when India got embroiled in a massive foreign exchange crisis and needed to look to new marketsand sources of investment (other than the traditional West), its shifting foreign policy stance acquired both the economic dimension with which it is best associated today, and also the name ‘Look East’. (Interestingly, Prime Minister Narasimha Rao himself, in the Singapore lecture of 1994 to which LEP is popularly dated, did not use the term ‘Look East’ – what he did say was that India needed to forge a new relationship with Southeast Asia).

A synchronised blend of a new domestic economic policy and a new direction to foreign policy thus marked the India of the early 1990s. India’s reaching out to the East was swiftly reciprocated by South Korea first and ASEAN subsequently (specifically, Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand followed by Indonesia). In 1992, ASEAN made India a Sectoral Dialogue partner and in 1995 the relationship was upgraded to full dialogue partnership at the ministerial level. However at no stage could India take admission for granted and it was only by working very hard and concentrating on one stop at a time , that Indian diplomats were able to gain admission for India into ASEAN’s portals! One of the book’s authors has called India ‘uncharacteristically pragmatic’ in not reacting ‘as a big power being made a supplicant’ for acceptance of its political and economic credentials. Possibly so, but at a time when even qualifying to be counted as part of the geographical footprint of ASEAN was an uphill task it was well that India acted uncharacteristically and pragmatically. When APEC was formed India was not even considered for inclusion. However a few years later, Indonesia as Chairman of ASEAN in 1996 helped facilitate India’s membership of ARF, a Strategic Dialogue forum, after placating some ASEAN countries’ fears that Indian participation would bring in Pakistan-related issues and bog it down. Trade with ASEAN grew rapidly from the 2.5 billion dollar level it was at when it started and investments into India’s infrastructural projects also started to flow.

In 1997-98 this smooth and intertwined progression in economic and strategic relations was rudely interrupted by the Asian financial crisis in which the so called ‘tiger’ economies of East and Southeast Asia were seriously set back, in some cases to change politically for ever. If ‘crisis’ is another word for ‘opportunity’, India’s failure to provide ASEAN with succour comparable to China or Japan (and thus seize the opportunity to enhance relations with these countries manifold) has been well critiqued by one of the authors of the book, if in the softest of tones. However, in 2002 when ASEAN began to recover and India was invited for the first time to participate in a PM level Dialogue, Atal Behari Vajpayee seized the opportunity to announce a possible FTA with ASEAN. The prospect of privileged access into India’s market excited these countries sufficiently to make dialogue with ASEAN an annual feature in the Indian Prime Minister’s calendar thereafter.

The third part of the book is more contemporary. In step with the FTA negotiations which were completed six years later in 2010, India’s annual trade with ASEAN has grown rapidly and is today approaching US$ 70 billion: investments in both directions have grown manifold as well. Strategic issues now are discussed in the ASEAN-driven forum known as the East Asia Summit (EAS), in which India’s role and place is as central as that of the US, China ,Russia, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and South Korea. Comfort levels between Indian officials today are high. With the recent opening up of democratic space, Myanmar is preparing to assume chairmanship of ASEAN in 2014, a development which will test India’s diplomatic acumen as never before. Heartbreaking accounts of bureaucratic inertia and lack of institutional coordination illustrate the pitfalls India needs to avoid in future if it is to promote its larger geopolitical interests in a country in which China already holds a well-entrenched position. If India plays its diplomatic cards right, the potential gains for India in both security and economic fields could be very big.

India’s maritime neighbourhood is already becoming an area where its peace-making skills are being tested, and tension here could increase with time. Stretching from its immediate neighbourhood in the Mallacca Straits right up to the South China Sea, India, together with other regional and world powers, has a vital stake in keeping communication links and sources of strategic materials free, open and inclusive.

What is the overall message of the book and how does LEP integrate with India’s foreign policy as a whole?

A well known observer of Indian foreign policy, Sunanda K Dutta Ray, suggests in his book Looking East to look West, that India’s LEP did not have engagement with the east as its primary objective, but was designed to help strengthen India’s strategic and economic wherewithal vis-à-vis the US in what appeared in the early 1990s to be a unipolar world. Fortunately the world’s ‘unipolar’ moment was short -lived and none of the contributors to the book have chosen to address this particular critique directly. However there is another prevailing critique which suggests that US ties with India are indispensable for the 21st Century and that India would benefit by becoming a lynch pin of US’ re-balancing in the Asia-Pacific. Two Decades of Look East Policy makes it clear that India sees no advantage in becoming such a lynch pin. Several contributors have declared in the book that India’s Look East Policy resumes the direction which was interrupted by the Cold War, and a policy of strategic autonomy set by the Asian Relations Conference in 1947 and the Bandung Conference in 1955.

‘Strategic autonomy’ has been defined by one contributor as a policy whereby ‘we are conscious of our geographical position midway between West and East Asia, confident of our blue water navy’s ability to keep the sea lanes of communication open in the interest of all, have no wish to dominate Asia, have no territorial disputes with countries to our east and nourish no historical grievances’. The past offers rich cultural connections to build upon but India has no desire to dwell in it. Perhaps the best summing up of the message is the contribution of Ambassador Suryakanti Tripathi wherein she says that for building an Asian century, Asia needs to interact much more within itself than with the outside world. With typical passion and verve, she demands from India it take it upon itself to know, impress, engage, invest and integrate with the East better.

The fact that India is already trading more with the East (and less with Europe) is one indicator that this is already starting to happen. However, the LEP needs to be about much more than trade or investment although admittedly, it is these two drivers which will set others in motion. Southeast Asia shares many similarities with India but the differences are glaring too and perhaps more important. In the past, India has given these countries high culture, language and much else of value. Now it needs to recognised in all humility that their economic success is the result of a certain broad and inclusive pragmatism and of nurturing a fraternal social base which India can either only envy or emulate. Indeed non-caste-based organisations promote non-hierarchical relationships and are essential for building modern, caring societies. A central place also needs to be given to universal elementary education which all these countries prioritised at the very start of their lives as independent states. Too much time has been lost already.

With recent official indications that tribal societies in the Northeast of India would become the focal point of the LEP combined with efforts to open up links with an increasingly democratic Myanmar, perhaps all is not lost, a much more hopeful future for the LEP, a future beyond trade and investment, can still be looked forward to. But for this to happen, people-to-people relations must be placed at the core of India’s relationship with the East. This should be done through inter-University collaboration, language learning programmes, faculty and student exchanges, research collaborations, discussions and dialogues among the youth and the media, and much more tourism and travel.

Ambassador AN Ram is to be congratulated for doing signal service to India’s reading public by bringing out this volume on twenty years of the LEP. But to identify clearly and then address its shortcomings, a companion volume on India’s bilateral relations with the countries of the East focusing on people-to-people relations is needed. It is heartening that in his introductory chapter to the book, Ram has himself admitted as much.

Navrekha Sharma
Former Indian Ambassador to Indonesia


IPCS (Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies) conducts independent research on conventional and non-conventional security issues in the region and shares its findings with policy makers and the public. It provides a forum for discussion with the strategic community on strategic issues and strives to explore alternatives. Moreover, it works towards building capacity among young scholars for greater refinement of their analyses of South Asian security.

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