India has been struggling with a Look East policy now for three decades. While easy to enunciate, it has been far more difficult for New Delhi to institutionalise and maintain a foreign policy drive that engaged nations along the Pacific Rim, from Japan to China, Singapore to Australia. Such an engagement would have seemed a no-brainer. These countries have been the drivers of the world economy since the 1970s. It is the success of the original Asian tiger economies, let alone the early industrialisation of Japan or the more recent accomplishments of China which are the inspiration for India’s post-1991 liberalisation.
But the Look East policy was often described by impatient, Asian governments as India’s “Look East, Look Away” policy because it proved so difficult for India to sustain its engagement. One of the reasons was economic. India is and remains far more protectionist than its East and Southeast Asian counterparts. Until recently, its tariff and investment barriers made it difficult for New Delhi to contemplate any treaty-based economic integration with other parts of Asia. Another was strategic. The Pacific Rim has been dominated by a balance of power game between a cluster of US-backed allies and China. India was wary of being part of this equation. Other Asian countries were uncertain on which side India stood. Finally, India was seen as not having the wherewithal to play a strategic role beyond the Straits of Malacca. All that has changed, especially after a drifting together of India and the US and a growing friction between India and China.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s three-nation Asia tour, encompassing Japan, Malaysia and Vietnam, is indicative of how Indian interests and role in this part of the world have expanded. In Japan, the prime minister will seek to consolidate a burgeoning economic relationship between India and Asia’s second largest economy. India is Japan’s number one foreign direct investment destination and Japan’s plans for improving India’s industrial infrastructure could transform India’s lagging manufacturing base. In Malaysia,
Dr Singh will inaugurate a relationship almost unrecognisable from what it was even a decade ago. Kuala Lumpur has long been seen as the thorn in the Look East policy. Economics and the image of a new India have turned this around. In Vietnam, India will be part of an East Asian Summit whose roster will now include the US and Australia, countries whose membership India supported as part of a broader policy of constraining Chinese assertiveness. That India is now an Asian power is acknowledged by Asian nations. India should not rest on its laurels. India continues to be alienated from the supply chains that connect the larger Asian economy. It needs to add more military sinews to its strategic vision. But it is clear that the Look East policy today is no longer merely about looking but about doing, influencing and benefiting.