The Indo-Pacific: India’s Look East 3.0

14 Mar, 2013    ·   3843

D. Suba Chandran contextualises India’s Look East Policy within the paradigm of contemporary regional dynamics

India, today, is well into the third decade of its Look East Policy, which was formulated in the 1990s. During the first decade, it was sound in theory; and in the second decade, India did take measures to implement its ideas. Still in the take-off stage as it enters the third decade since its conception, what should be the parameters of India’s Look East Policy, given the fact that Southeast Asia has witnessed so much transformation? How far should India look east, and from where?

Looking East: Third Generation Push
In the recent years, there has been a renewed push in India’s Look East Policy, primarily led by the Ministry of External Affairs.

A significant aspect of this new push has been the involvement of actors and institutions outside the government, especially the foreign ministry. The foreign ministry has been proactive, and is trying to involve the business community, research institutes, and think tanks in India. It appears that after having been ‘looking east’ for the first two decades, there is a serious effort towards ‘acting east’. The Delhi Dialogue V, concluded recently in February 2012, highlights this stance that India is taking. It is, indeed, a good beginning as India steps into the third decade of its interaction with Southeast Asia.

What could be the specific parameters of India’s Look East 3.0?

‘Acting East’ and ‘Bringing East’
There has been a serious criticism that India has only been ‘looking’ eastwards, but not pursuing a comprehensive strategy towards Southeast Asian countries, and the ASEAN.

Today, there is a conscious effort by the foreign ministry not only to ‘look east’, but also to ‘act east’. India’s bilateral relations with specific countries in Southeast Asia, and its interaction with the ASEAN; along with multiple other regional organisations and initiatives including the ARF and the EAS, highlight its ‘act east’ strategy.

Whilst India should pursue this strategy, New Delhi should also take a comprehensive effort to ‘bring east’ into India. Along with India moving into Southeast Asia, New Delhi should also take serious measures in bringing the countries east of India into India – within the prism of economic, cultural, and societal fields.

On economic and trade relations, not all countries to India’s east will have an interest or sufficient capacity to invest in the country. But specific nations could be identified, and efforts could be made to attract investment from them. This investment need not necessarily be directly in context of the economic field, but could also cover other sectors such as education and tourism. While Japan, Korea, and Singapore may have adequate resources to invest economically in India, countries like Australia can be approached to invest in education and other sectors.

New Delhi should also approach other countries in Southeast Asia and East Asia to come to India; historical linkages, tourism, and religion can play a crucial role in attracting some of the countries in the east, starting from Myanmar including Thailand, Indonesia, and Cambodia. An example will be the huge asymmetry between India and Thailand, or India and Cambodia in terms of movement of people. While more Indians visit Thailand, and to an extent Cambodia, what is the percentage of Thai and Cambodian visitors to India?

There are two simple problems in attracting more tourism from Southeast and East Asia – lack of sufficient knowledge about India in these countries, and complex visa procedures. Though the foreign ministry understands the problem, this has not been translated into action. Perhaps, there is a huge difference between how the foreign ministry in South Block perceives its ‘Look East’, and how its bureaucracy, especially the visa offices in respective countries, implement it. Many Southeast and East Asians rank the experience to procure a visa from an Indian embassy from ‘impossible’ to ‘horrible’.

The embassies and missions in Southeast and East Asia, being the public face of India and the first experience to the local people, will have to become friendly and professional, and avoid being seen as ‘bureaucratic’ and ‘high handed’. Given the rigidity and structure of the Indian bureaucracy, an easier way out could be to adopt a strategy of providing more visas on arrival. Else, New Delhi will keep looking east, but none from the East will look west towards India.

Look East 3.0: How Far and Where From?
Another important component of the Look East 3.0 should be in terms of how far India should look east. In the 1990s, when the policy was designed, it was primarily focussed on Southeast Asia. Now, in the third decade, India should expand its definition of ‘East’ and extend it to Japan and Australia.

Today, East Asia including Japan, Korea, and Taiwan; and Australia are equally important for India in economic, political, and cultural terms. A strong relationship with these countries will provide a concrete base for New Delhi to shape an Asian security architecture.

Towards achieving the above objectives, India’s Look East 3.0 should use the ‘Indo-Pacific’ as its own pivot towards the Asia-Pacific.

Finally, India’s Look East 3.0 should involve regional actors, and not purely be based in New Delhi alone. Chennai, Bangalore, Kolkata, and the entire Northeast should become an essential component of India’s Look East Policy. In simple terms, India should Look East from different sub-regions within the country, with different strategies.