India’s Asia-Pacific Engagement: Impulses and Imperatives is a sequel to another book edited by Amar Nath Ram, titled Two Decades of India’s Look East Policy: Partnership for Peace, Progress and Prosperity, published in 2012. The work is a very opportune contribution to the field for two reasons. First, after the different phases of India’s engagement with the countries of Southeast and East Asia, another qualitatively different idea of Asia-Pacific has gradually expanded the ‘canvas’ of India’s policy considerations. India’s Look East Policy would now mean more than what it is used to both in terms of geography and also its content. For the same reason, the scope of the work is expanded to cover Asia-Pacific in the current volume. The second important reason is that the new Modi government has given a new thrust to India’s engagement with the region by renaming it the ‘Act East Policy’. It is not and definitely should not imply just a name change but a very different approach entirely; one which would be more action-oriented and be based on a much broader vision of India’s role in the region.
Another important feature of the work is that most of the authors in the book are basically former diplomats and most of them are still academically active through their research and writings. Many of these authors have been involved in different capacities in making in as well as in the implementation of the India’s Look East Policy. They provide some interesting personal experiences, insightful perspectives and thoughtful prescriptions, which are very important in this transitory phase of making India’s foreign policy orientation towards the Asia-Pacific region. The work is indeed going to be an important source of work in this upcoming area of enquiry.
The editor in the very beginning of the book has clarified that he has not tried to coordinate among the diverse as well as overlapping themes of enquiry covered by various authors, though he has flagged most of the relevant issues of debates in the introduction of the book. It gives readers more space to understand the message of the various chapters and construct their own perspectives. The editor has very lucidly tried to summarise the debates raised by the authors at the end, and credit must be given to him for organising and coordinating between the many experts who have written for the project.
The book has been divided into six parts: India-ASEAN Partnership: Impulses and Imperatives for Integration, Strategic and Political Relations: Prospects and Limitations, Economic and Trade Linkages: Promise and Potential, Security Convergences: A New Evolving Paradigm, Culture, Diaspora and ‘Soft Power’ Dimension: An Underemployed Asset?, and the Road Ahead: Imperative of Interdependence.
The first part of the book has three chapters, which are largely concentrated on India’s interactions with ASEAN countries through the historical, personal experience and regional architecture points of view. The second part of the book tries to expand the scope of enquiry by bringing in the larger East Asian region in the debate. In the last chapter of the second part of the book, the significance of Myanmar for India’s LEP has been brought out well. The third part of the book is about economic dimensions of India’s LEP, consisting of two chapters that draw our attention towards some important undercurrents of India’s bilateral and regional relations in this region. The fifth part of the book is about India’s cultural connections with Southeast Asian countries, which might become our ‘soft power’ in dealing with these them. In the three chapters of this part, the book brings out our historical linkages with many of these countries, which could still be seen and felt in their dormant or expressed forms. Parts four and six of the book might be considered the crux of the new thrust that has been sought to be studied and analysed in the book, which is India’s Look East Policy in the Asia-Pacific region. The four chapters of part four and another four chapters of part six bring out the main debates in the field very clearly. The last two chapters, written by Rajiv K Bhatia and AN Ram respectively, summarise the debate quite well at the end of the book.
One clarification about the book must be made to its prospective readers. Although most of the titles of the book use the term Southeast Asia, East Asia or ASEAN, a careful reading makes it clear that they are informed by and posited in the context of the newly re-discovered category of Indo-Pacific or Asia-Pacific. For example, Skand Tayal in his chapter deals with the Indo-Pacific region by talking about the three-tier regional security architecture of the Indo-Pacific, though he does not use this term in the title of his chapter.
Few readers might be dissatisfied by the book as there is no extensive survey of India’s relations with South Korea, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and a few other Asia-Pacific countries. As we seek to broaden our canvas, it would have been interesting to have more space for India’s bilateral relations with these countries as well.
As mentioned in the editor’s reflection at the end of book, most of “the essays in this volume, generally, analyse, assess and evaluate the LEP positively,” but it would have not been unsuitable to bring in some critical perspectives, shortcomings and alternate strategies in the debate. Such perspectives would have done an important and necessary value addition to the book. Repetitions of some facts and figures might lead readers to feel that these could have been avoided, but others might say that they are required to make forceful arguments in different chapters. Non-uniformity in the writings of various chapters - for example, many chapters have endnotes but some others do not - could have also been avoided.
These minor suggestions apart, the book is indeed going to become one of the major works on the subject, based as it is on almost three decades of experience of past policy-makers. The perspectives and prescriptions would be very useful for current policy-makers, scholars and students in this field. The recommendations of the book, which point to the need for a “multi-pronged approach” and “building of trust,” appear to be simple, but they have a big part to play in ushering in positive changes in regional politics and India’s constructive role in it.