Dialogue  October-December, 2008 , Volume 10 No. 2

Domestic Imperatives of India’s Growing  engagement with  Asia –Pacific 


A.N. Ram*



India’s Look East Policy, launched in the early 1990s under the direction of former Prime Minister, Shri P.V. Narasimha Rao, in its evolution, has passed through three distinct phases.  In the first phase, from around 1992 to 1997, India’s nascent partnership with the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) expanded and deepened from limited sectoral dialogue in four identified areas to full dialogue partnership in 1995, encompassing a much broader canvas.  This phase saw a structured and institutionalized framework for partnership develop between India and ASEAN. Also during this period, India  was admitted as a full member of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) in 1996, a dialogue platform mainly for discussing regional security issues with the participation of all ARF members,  regional and extra-regional. This phase, significantly, was marked by a quantum leap in India’s bilateral relations with the ASEAN countries; expansion of trade, technology and investment exchanges; frequent exchange of high level visits starting with Prime Minister, P.V. Narasimha Rao’s historic visit to Thailand in 1993 and to other South-East Asian countries; and a gradual thawing of relations after the unfortunate misunderstandings, largely caused due to India’s policy on Kampuchea and Indo-China.  The ASEAN countries too were looking to take full advantage of India’s

economic reforms and the opening up of the Indian economy. For India, her economic imperatives propelled the Look East Policy. The international environment too, after the cold war,  was propitious for India and ASEAN to resume a reinvigorated partnership of which our Look East Policy and ASEAN’s Look West Policy  provided the impetus for a new relationship based on evolving convergences and the imperatives of profound post cold war strategic, economic and political changes underway. 



       The second phase, from approximately 1998 to 2002, can be described as a period of missed opportunities and our failure to consolidate and build upon our promising partnership with ASEAN.   The 1998 Pokharan-II tests created a climate of unease, if not apprehension,  among some ASEAN countries;   economic and commercial exchanges  plateaued and even declined in some cases;  the impediments to freer flow  of investments, trade and tourism, perceived to have been caused by rigid Indian domestic laws, came in the way of  our not being able to attract greater ASEAN involvement with India ; projects like the TATA-Singapore(SIA) Airline tie-up  to augment capacity and induct technology failed to take off;  there were also difficulties in the finalization of some other infrastructure, high technology and agriculture projects; not much progress was being achieved in working out new and more liberal trade and investment regimes; to add to all these, the  intensity and frequency of high level  exchanges  and dialogue came down.   This was also a period when foreign policy, apparently, was driven by other preoccupations and priorities. 



      Happily, this period of hiatus was brief and ended in the early 2000s with India’s growing economic, political and military clout and the now manifest potential of the Indian economy in the context of globalization. This could be described as the promising third phase of India’s Look East Policy. India’s bilateral relations too with the ASEAN countries began to show an upward trend.  Countries like Singapore and Thailand were the first to seize the moment and advocate a much greater role for India in the Asia-Pacific.  With political stability and growing clout, we were able to once again focus on the revival and reinvigoration of our Look East Policy.  It was, therefore,  not surprising that in 2002, India-ASEAN full dialogue partnership was  unanimously  raised to Summit level dialogue (ASEAN+I), an arrangement so far reserved only for  Japan, South Korea and China (ASEAN + 3), though India is not a part of the ASEAN+3 dialogue structure.  India joining this exclusive arrangement meant a much higher level of partnership with and involvement in South-East Asia.  India and ASEAN, at the Laos  Summit in 2002, agreed on an ambitious  Vision document for partnership up to 2020; at the Bali Summit (2003), India promptly  endorsed the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation( TAC) and  the proposal to declare South-East Asia as a  Zone of Peace, Friendship and Neutrality  (ZOPFAN), a long pending  expectation of ASEAN; it was at Bali again that India announced its intention to enter into a Framework Agreement for Free Trade (FTA) with ASEAN; bi-lateral FTA with Thailand and Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement(CECA) with Singapore are now ready to be implemented; and simultaneously, India has commenced discussions on Investment Protection, S&T, HRD and joint Tourism Promotion Agreements with ASEAN.  Accompanying this was a steady growth in India’s two-way trade (now estimated to be around US $ 40 billion) and investment relations with the ASEAN countries. The India-ASEAN Joint Business Council (JBC) has also been energized and plays an important part in this process.  High level bilateral visits were also intensified.  India’s participation in ASEAN Post Ministerial Conferences (PMCs) and at ARF conclaves also became much more substantive and meaningful. The first East-Asia Summit (EAS), held in Kuala Lumpur in 2005, and the subsequent EAS summit meetings furthered India’s integration process with the Asia-Pacific countries, including China, Japan, South Korea and Australia, besides the ASEAN countries, also contributing to the growth in our bi-lateral relations with the Asia-Pacific countries( India, however, is not yet a full participant in the Asia-Pacific Economic Community-APEC , though this is only a matter of time). India’s membership of sub-regional arrangements like the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMST-EC) and Mekong-Ganga Cooperation (MGC) are now an integral part of this process. The Indian Ocean and its waterways connecting it to the Pacific and to the West to Africa, Europe and beyond are of common interest to us and bring us together in fora like the Indian Ocean Regional Association for Regional Cooperation (IOR-ARC). Simultaneously, at the track-II and inter-governmental levels, similar discourse is taking place in Asia-Pacific organizations like the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia-Pacific (CSCAP) of which India has been a member since 2000, Asian Cooperation for Development (ACD), the Chiang Mai Initiative etc. Happily, India is now a full participant in the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) from which India was initially kept out because of reservations on the part of one or two ASEAN countries, thus signifying the changed perception of India. It is noteworthy that in this third phase, currently in progress, India this year has finalized a Free Trade Agreement in goods with ASEAN  (two way trade is expected to double by 2015), bilateral Free Trade Agreements with Singapore and Thailand and investment agreements with some other countries. Tourism flows have also gone up significantly.   India-ASEAN relations are poised for a major all round surge forward; the changed international strategic and economic imperatives make this partnership now indispensable. 



     Until about the late 80s it was customary to look at India-ASEAN relations largely in a shared civilizational, cultural and historical prism.  Unfortunately, modern day nation states and regional entities do not always see their international relations in such a narrow paradigm.  A relationship devoid of fundamental mutuality of interest and deep and sustainable manifest content is unlikely to prosper in the contemporary context.   Even though India-ASEAN relations go back into antiquity and have been nurtured by unique bonds, our modern diplomatic relations are comparatively recent, established after India’s independence.  The imperative of cold-war geo-politics inevitably drew India and ASEAN apart, both looking at each other from the cold-war prism.  India was seen as being too closely tied to the Soviet apron strings and decisively on the other side of the cold-war divide; non-alignment was seen to be synonymous with anti-Americanism; there was very little bilateral content to this ancient relationship to mitigate the pulls and pressures of the cold-war divide. India, on the other hand, viewed ASEAN as an integral part of the US led strategic alliance, inimical to its own interests in a vital neighbouring region. Both continued to drift apart, maintaining only minimal correct relations with virtually no warmth, devoid of any significant political, strategic, cultural or commercial congruence. The 1980s saw a further distancing and diminishing of bilateral relations; India’s policy on Kampuchea – a close neighbour of Thailand’s and Indo-China - was seen to be unfriendly and inimical. The relationship dipped to a new low of apathy. The perception that a poverty-ridden India was too embroiled in sub-continental  problems did not help matters. China was beginning to emerge as a major factor in South-East Asia and comparisons between India and China were inevitable.  It was only after Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao launched his historic and path breaking “Look East Policy” after the end of the cold-war and visited Thailand and other ASEAN countries in 1993 in pursuance of this policy that relations began to gradually improve, both bilaterally and regionally with ASEAN.  Reservations in ASEAN were so deeply entrenched that it required deft and subtle diplomacy- and patience- to break barriers. Prime Minister Rao’s visit to Thailand in 1993, in that sense too, was path breaking.   After 1993, there was no looking back and India’s all-round relations wit ASEAN began to prosper and grow multi-dimensionally, particularly in areas like trade and investments, tourism, HRD, science & technology and in evolving a new partnership. The time had come for the two great neighbours, India and ASEAN, to catapult their somewhat low content and low intensity relationship into a meaningful, mutually beneficial and sustainable partnership based on our respective national, sub-regional, regional and international imperatives and the new post cold-war convergences that make India and ASEAN indispensable partners.   



       The post cold-war strategic and security landscape has dramatically altered the perspectives of countries and regions, including India and ASEAN. Today, Russia (erstwhile Soviet Union) and the United States are no longer adversaries casting the shadow of their rivalry over South-East Asia and elsewhere; the US, the sole super power, has emerged as the pivot of this new global and regional architecture; the cold-war military alliances have become largely irrelevant; Europe is reshaping its relations with its Eastern neighbours as also with its NATO partners; the non-aligned movement has all but withered away; China has emerged as a major factor on the international scene, particularly in the Asia-Pacific;  Japan seems to be in search of a new  and enlarged role in the Asia-Pacific; India is emerging  as a regional and global player with over-arching relationships. India’s emergence from nuclear isolation following a unique and one of a kind waiver granted to it by the Nuclear Supplier’s Group( NSG) on September 6, 2008 is bound to further positively impact on India- ASEAN relations. India will, no doubt, be seen as a major global and regional factor capable of playing a significant role in Asia-Pacific affairs; ASEAN will surely factor this development in its strategic calculus. ASEAN, an economic miracle of the 1990s, is also facing new challenges and new opportunities beckon it. 

      Where do India and ASEAN go from here?  Both India and ASEAN need an uninterrupted period of peace in a secure and stable politico-strategic-economic environment. The economic growth and social stability of our two regions is contingent upon this.  The Indian Ocean and the Bay of Bengal space, our common maritime boundaries and sea-lanes and our neighbour, Myanmar, are factors that cannot be ignored in our strategic and security calculus and discourse.  India and ASEAN have a common interest and a role to play in ensuring and maintaining peace, prosperity and stability in this region.  In the larger Asia–Pacific regional context, we both, as major trading entities and importers of oil and energy, need to work together to ensure the safety and freedom of the sea-lanes passing through the Indian Ocean and South-East-Asia.    Energy security is a major concern as both regions depend heavily on oil imports.   Both India and ASEAN face similar and common environmental challenges and need to cooperate in controlling and combating global warming and other ecological and environmental challenges.  Recently, at the Bali Summit on climate change both India and ASEAN had taken similar positions in advocating a purposeful policy response.  Both are victims of natural disasters, as demonstrated by the devastating Tsunami that struck the region in 2004, and need to carry the process of regional cooperation and coordinated action forward.  Since our political stability, security and economic well-being are firmly anchored in the Asia-Pacific and in the Gulf to India’s west, we have a deep and abiding common interest in peace and stability in this larger region as well. Our foreign, security and defence policies cannot be oblivious to the fact that our extended neighbourhood remains an area of tension and rivalry and, therefore, of crucial importance for our own peace, security and development.  Central Asia should be seen as a part of this extended neighbourhood just as the Asia-Pacific is.  Therefore, for example, recent events in Indonesia, East-Timor, Afghanistan, Fiji, the Gulf, West Asia, Pakistan, Iraq and elsewhere in our extended neighbourhood are matters of common concern to us and call for a common and coordinated approach/policy, where possible. The Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation (IOR-ARC) and its space is also of common interest to India and ASEAN.   It is noteworthy that in the post cold-war era, India is emerging as a major regional and global player with extremely supportive cooperation arrangements with the United Sates, Europe and Russia. India’s relations with China have also improved considerably and both countries are cooperating in significant new areas, including in the Asia-pacific. India’s pivotal role in the India Ocean region and South-East-Asia has been enlarged in recent years and India is now helping to safeguard the security of the Indian Ocean area, particularly the sea-lanes, and the sea-lane arteries of South-East-Asia.  India now is also one of the recognized nuclear weapon powers of the region and has a stake in preserving peace and stability of its neighbourhood.  In this context, the vastly improved relations between India and China augur well for regional and international peace. It must also be remembered that India is a major politico-economic-military power with over-arching interest in the peace and stability of the larger region.   India’s growing economic, military and knowledge clout is bound to become a major factor for peace in our extended neighbourhood. While India does not wish to be seen as a counterpoise to China in South-East-Asia, India’s growing strength-military and economic- is also in South-East-Asia’s interest and is necessary for peace and stability in Asia. ASEAN is one of the fastest growing economies of the world and is a strategically important partner in a fluid neighbourhood. It is a pluralistic multi-ethnic and multi-religious democracy which faces challenges, domestic and external, similar to India’s. India and ASEAN, therefore, need to exchange views and cooperate in the shaping of this new emerging architecture in our region. India’s strength should be seen as minimizing the vulnerabilities of South-East-Asia, particularly as India has no hegemonistic designs or a vested agenda in this friendly region. That is the essence of our evolving strategic partnership and the crucial importance of India- ASEAN relations. 



     India’s Look East Policy, initially, was premised more on economic rather than on strategic considerations.  More recently, however, India has expanded her low level links with the Asia-Pacific to include political, defense, maritime, strategic and hitherto unexplored areas of economic cooperation.  The Look East Policy, in other words, has now acquired a strategic dimension.  Our domestic priorities and concerns are now an integral and indispensable core element in our Look East Policy.  Southeast Asian countries too are beginning to see strategic congruences evolving with India.  India, to them, provides an additional option and an enhanced comfort level.  Their own Look West Policy takes into account India’s potential political and military strengths, apart from her enormous economic and other attractions. The growing non-economic convergences include areas such as the war against global and regional terrorism and extremism, trans-national crime, cross border subversion and insurgencies and maritime cooperation, including safety of sea lanes, ports, economic zones etc.  The economic convergences also go beyond traditional trade and commerce and now include areas such as energy security, HRD, environment, S&T and the new emerging areas of the knowledge economy.  India is appearing to look attractive and a new imperative is beginning to become evident.

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       On her part, India is now increasingly looking at its growing relations with her eastern neighbours from the prism of her domestic compulsions, particularly in the North East and in the Andaman Sea. In a manner of speaking, our Look East Policy should take off from our North East, a point rightly emphasized by our Minister for North East Region, Shri Mani Shankar Aiyer Some of these problems, it is now recognized, have historical transnational dimensions and implications. Peace and normalcy in the North East, for example, cannot be fully restored and ensured without the cooperation of Bangladesh, Nepal, Myanmar and Thailand. This region is unique and has always had transnational links. Subversion and terrorism, drugs and its nexus with crime and trans- border trade and economic links, for example, have to be seen in a historical and traditional context. Over 95% of the borders of our Northeast are with foreign countries, a reality we can ill afford to ignore. While there is no precise estimate of trans-border informal trade, it is widely believed that it is larger than formal trade. There are other trans-border links too based on cultural affinities, tradition, connectivity and ethnicity that have governed relations between the North-East of India and the neighbouring countries. Likewise, the security of the Andaman Sea, the sea-lanes and our economic zone will need sub-regional cooperation with countries like Thailand, Myanmar, Indonesia and Bangladesh.  Cooperation in preserving the ecology, environment and the unique fragile bio-diversity of this region is also an imperative, which we cannot ignore. This region has emerged as a hub of piracy, poaching and maritime crimes. Even intelligence gathering by foreign powers in this space is said to have increased. If China’s growing influence and presence (China has military bases in Myanmar close to India and plans to augment her military presence in this strategic space) in this region is to be contained and managed, strategic links with our eastern

neighbours are indispensable. That is a rationale of our renewed Look East policy in this third phase in the contemporary context. The Asia –Pacific now again is our strategic partner. 


    Apart from the North-East and the Andaman & Nicobar (A&N) Islands, among the other domestic challenges that make it imperative for India to deepen her partnership with South-East Asia are combating domestic and international terrorism, trans-national crime and its nexus with drugs, fundamentalism and extremism, illegal migration  and transfer of laundered money, small arms, human trafficking etc. Some countries/groups also indulge in clandestine trade in sensitive technologies and materials and there is a growing network of proliferation of such lethal materials through State and non State actors, a matter of concern to both India and ASEAN.  Both are also victims of cross border terror, trans-national crime and drug trafficking.  India shares a 1600 km long land border and a long maritime boundary and common space with SE Asia.  We are both dependent on cooperation to fight these destabilizing forces.  Indeed, both face terrorist and criminal elements that are common, often externally inspired and supported.  Indian terrorist groups often take shelter and set up operational bases in countries like Myanmar, Bangladesh and Thailand.  The North-East terrorist groups have close ethnic and other ties with groups operating in Myanmar, Bangladesh and Northern Thailand.  These concerns, therefore, have trans-border dimensions which can only be met through cooperation, joint action, intelligence sharing and even a joint mechanism at the political, policing and military levels.   Likewise, our neighbours too could benefit from cooperation with India.  Bangladesh, though not an ASEAN country, has emerged as a major hub of terrorism and  needs to be brought within the ambit of such institutionalized sub- regional cooperation arrangements. 


      India and ASEAN are fast growing economies which need increased trade, investment and technology access and avenues; both have an abiding interest in open non-discriminatory and non protective trade and a level playing field which is what they are trying to secure at the Doha Round Trade Negotiations. The present system is heavily weighted in favour of the developed countries and both India and ASEAN seek a greater voice in a restructured global economic order.  For India and ASEAN to prosper, progress and improve the quality of life of their peoples, it is necessary to forge a common front of similarly placed developing countries, particularly, for example, in dealing with the ongoing American caused global economic meltdown and other related issues of common concern.  Both are energy deficient and need to promote energy security.  Our impressive economic growth could be seriously hindered if the ongoing energy crunch and the high and fluctuating prices of oil continue. India has done commendable work in developing non-conventional and alternate energy sources. This experience and expertise could be shared with ASEAN. Also, the recent agreements with France and the US and the impending agreement with Russia in December 2008 on civil nuclear energy cooperation offer an exciting opportunity and option. The security and safety of the seas and the sea-lanes, so necessary for our trade and energy requirements, make it imperative for India and ASEAN to cooperate in ensuring and enhancing energy security.  Cooperation in maritime security is also necessary to fight criminal elements, poachers and to protect our economic zones and fisheries.  The Coast Guards and the Navies of India and ASEAN already have augmented their cooperative arrangements but much more needs to be done to evolve better coordinated and more effective arrangements.                                                    Defense cooperation, arguably, is one of the core elements of such arrangements.  Happily, military and naval cooperation and confidence levels have grown in recent years, particularly with countries like Singapore, Japan, Australia, Thailand and Indonesia.  Programmes like ‘Milan’ and the joint naval exercises, both bilateral and multilateral, have given us a better understanding of the strategic imperatives of these countries and an insight into their perspectives, thinking and concerns.  Defence exports and other tie ups are also beginning to make an impact and India is now increasingly perceived as a reliable, benign and competent partner who can be trusted (a far cry from the cold-war days!).  Indeed, India is now seen as capable of filling a felt gap in areas like training, supply and maintenance of defence wares, upgradation of systems and technologies and, above all, as a viable option for these countries which, in some cases, face a vacuum in fulfilling their defence requirements in the context of the fluid and changed strategic environment in the region. For the first time in a long while India is not seen with a preconceived cold war entrenched mindset.  It is, therefore, not surprising that India now  has strategic and service- to -service dialogues with the ASEAN countries, Japan, South Korea, Australia and even China, thus signaling a change in the perspectives of these countries.  The emerging third pillar of ASEAN, the ASEAN Security Community, is still under discussion. India has a vital stake in this evolving arrangement and has already signaled interest in cooperating with this forum, first at the Bali ASEAN Summit in 2003 and subsequently on other occasions. ASC will not overlap ARF; it will essentially be ASEAN’s internal regional security forum, perhaps with selective external linkages and arrangements. India wants to be integral to this process. In other words, India is poised to become integral to the strategic calculus of the region and a mutuality of interest and inter-dependence is now becoming evident and is being recognized.


       A major current domestic concern with international and cross-border ramification is cooperation in preserving the environment and countering the effects of climate change.  Climate change cannot be effectively countered by national efforts alone.  India and ASEAN are neighbours who share the same geographical space, common seas and face similar climatic challenges.  Unless the effects of climate change are countered and controlled collectively, our very existence will be threatened. This should become an important part of our continuing discourse.  India and ASEAN need to redouble efforts to tackle this problem through cooperation.  Likewise, cooperation in dealing with natural and man made disasters is the only way to deal with issues like the Tsunami, earthquakes, oil spills etc.


      The India Diaspora, particularly in SE Asia, is a major bridge between their adopted countries and India.  They have contributed much to their adopted countries and today have the capacity and wherewithal to promote links – economic, commercial and cultural – between India and ASEAN.  Overseas Chinese, though greater in numbers, are a major source of foreign investments in China; overseas Indians too are now beginning to invest in India. One day, in the not too distant future, they could become the best insurance for closer friendship and cooperation between India and ASEAN.  The domestic spread effect of the Indian Diaspora’s growing involvement with their home country could become a significant trigger for socio-economic development and growth of their original home states in India.  They will also increasingly become an instrument of promoting friendship between India and their adopted countries.


      The security, progress and rapid growth of India and ASEAN depend on peace and stability in our extended neighbourhood.  Both, therefore, have a vested interest in promoting peace and stability.  I visualize a unique partnership evolving between India and ASEAN, based on our shared civilizational bonds and growing strategic, political, defense, economic and cultural congruences. Both seek peace, development, disarmament, stability and are partners in trade and commerce, combating terror and crime, promoting maritime and energy security, jointly working to fight the adverse effects of climate change and, above all, in nurturing our mutually enriching civilizational bonds through growing people to people contacts, educational and cultural exchanges, tourism and jointly exploring the frontier areas of Science and Technology.  India-ASEAN partnership in the coming years is poised to become a major factor in the strategic landscape of the Asia-Pacific. India and ASEAN, together, with the other Asia-Pacific countries are now seeing mutual advantage and the inevitability of together building and maintaining regional peace, security and stability and in evolving a new secure regional strategic and economic architecture in our shared extended neighbourhood. The challenge for Indian diplomacy would be to explore further, develop, sustain, manage and maintain a secure, stable, prosperous, democratic and outside interference free region in which all have an equal stake and opportunity. India in this evolving regional architecture has a pivotal place and special responsibility along with countries like Japan, South Korea, China, Australia and the South-East Asian countries, pillars of emerging Asia-Pacific security and stability.  Economic, strategic and defence cooperation are the fulcrums of this mutually inter-dependent regional security architecture. Indeed, defence and economic cooperation are the best and most enduring confidence building measures (CBMs) and an insurance against the vicissitudes of international relations.  Asia-Pacific has to rediscover its unique identity and common destiny in our collective pursuit of our region’s well being.  That was the purport of Pandit Nehru’s vision for Asia and the message of the first Asian Relations Conference in 1947 and the subsequent Bandung Conference.  He saw Asia progressing and moving ahead in unity through cooperation on the  basis of Panchsheela. This message, more than ever, is relevant today.  ASEAN and East-Asia too now need India as a stabilizing and balancing force in the region. The countries of the Asia-Pacific, notably, China, Japan, South Korea and Australia will, in their own interest, have to build upon this imperative of an overarching Pan Asia-Pacific partnership with India and ASEAN if this space is to realize its promise and potential. India, arguably, is no longer peripheral to the Asia-Pacific and should be seen as an integral part of this new emerging architecture. The pursuit of our national and domestic interests in furthering and shaping our Look East engagement is no longer an option but an imperative for India, in partnership with the Asia-Pacific.


Dialogue A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati

Astha Bharati