A major shift from the foreign policy of the Nehruvian years took place when Narasimha Rao as prime minister embarked on his Look East policy in 1991. Following the onset of the Cold War, non-alignment had defined India’s view of the world. Over time, India was perceived as being in Moscow’s embrace and Washington’s opinion of New Delhi was markedly hostile. For over four decades, India saw itself isolated and berated, whether on Kashmir, relations with Islamabad, the Bangladesh war of liberation or the nuclear tests.
Rao’s overtures through the Look East policy were as much about telling the West that the world was much bigger than Europe and North America as it was about discovering and rediscovering how it might engage with the countries in Southeast Asia and create, possibly, an Asian worldview.
In the initial years, India sought out the deep civilisational links it enjoyed for centuries with the region. Gradually, the word ‘East’ came to refer to the space east of India and embraced a substantially larger geographical area, extending to East Asia and Japan. Over time, economic and strategic issues, including the importance of the Pacific, made the Look East policy one of the core pillars of Indian foreign policy. Some would argue that even Australia has become part of this fraternity following Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent breakthrough visit.
From the very early years, Beijing viewed India’s engagement with the region with grave misgivings. Its policies towards New Delhi moved from scorn (1962 war ‘to teach India a lesson’) to concern. Quite unsuccessfully, Beijing repeatedly tried to stall New Delhi’s engagement with East Asia and the Asean community.
Today, Modi’s unambiguous reference to the freedom of navigation — a clear reference to China’s unilateral and aggressive posturing in the Pacific — has Beijing bristling. Modi has not hesitated to build stronger links with the East Asian and Asean community, Japan, Vietnam and Australia. New Delhi’s offer to provide four patrol boats to the Vietnamese navy, train 500 Vietnamese sailors ‘in comprehensive underwater combat warfare’ and agree to talk about selling the anti-ship supersonic Cruise missile Brahmos are a clear signal that a different India is now at the negotiating table. Added to this was the agreement with Australian prime minister Tony Abbott for a comprehensive defence relationship, including maritime security. New Delhi’s current bonhomie with Washington and heightened US interest in the Pacific add to Beijing’s worry.
India’s Look East policy has undergone a fundamental and strategic shift from revisiting its civilisational links to one that is aimed at crafting an Asian architecture. This new thinking is a clear enunciation that India is departing from its earlier policy of appeasement and strategic distancing to avoid contentious issues. New Delhi appears, finally, to have understood that Beijing will do whatever is necessary to pursue its foreign policy and strategic interests, even if it means annoying other countries.
Perhaps it is time a clear message was conveyed to Beijing by inviting a high-level ministerial delegation from Taiwan or by honouring the Dalai Lama with the Bharat Ratna.
Amit Dasgupta is former Indian Consul General in Sydney The views expressed by the authors are personal