Many of the Southeast Asian leaders who came to New Delhi for the 20th anniversary summit ran off to historical sites and religious shrines closely related to their homelands. This underlines the strength of past links between India and that part of the world. The tangible consequence of the summit will be the completion of the second phase of the free trade agreement between India and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
This section will play to India’s economic strength, the services sector, and is expected to exponentially increase the already extensive trade and investment relationship. But the newer facet of this relationship is the slowly expanding military and security association between the two sides. Much of this is bilateral, but put it all altogether and this security issue may prove to be the most significant part of India’s Look East policy in the coming decades.
The Look East policy was one of many important foreign policy initiatives carried out by the Narasimha Rao government. But it struggled because of India’s own lack of belief that it could compete against the Asian tigers on a level economic playing field. But it has. Trade and investment have flourished. Today, the Southeast Asian nations even see India, especially the Indian private corporate sector, as an economic partner that can help them resurrect their own flagging fortunes. The next step will be the foreign policy field. This will be far trickier, but essential for an India whose security footprint now extends even beyond the Straits of Malacca. A number of Asean nations are at loggerheads with China over territorial disputes. A few of the smaller members, however, are in lockstep with Beijing on policy issues. And it should not be forgotten that Asean has its origins as a treaty alliance with the US.
The point is that India’s Look East policy graduated to a Trade East policy. After a flood of free trade agreements — not all of them thought out very well — and back and forth investments, the policy now needs to move the goalposts further. A Secure East policy is broadly what India should be seeking, especially with those countries bordering the Indian Ocean. This would seek to make clear what India’s primary security interests are and persuade these countries to take New Delhi’s concerns into account as they shape their own policies. This will not be easy. The Asean increasingly speaks less and less with one voice when it comes to foreign policy. Some countries, like Indonesia, are so large that they must be handled separately. Others, notably Myanmar and increasingly Thailand, are unsettled domestically. Look East is now about Acting East and India must up its game accordingly.