The geographical term “Indochina” originated in the early 19th century to refer to the continental portion of the region now known as Southeast Asia. The name points to the land historically having been within the cultural influence of India and China, and physically bound by the South Asian subcontinent in the west and China in the north.
As regards rising Indian influence in Southeast Asia, the story begins with some historic events in the middle of the 20th century, such as the Asian Relations Conference of 1947 in New Delhi and the 1955 Bandung Conference in Indonesia, which were inspired by such factors as Asian identity, nationalism, and culture in the postcolonial context. Indian leader Jawaharlal Nehru foresaw his county moving toward the center of economic and political activity in the Indian Ocean region, South Asia and Southeast Asia, extending to the Middle East.
The perceptions of India that had been held in Southeast Asia from the late 1950s to the late 1980s changed in the early 1990s, marking an important milestone in Asian resurgence, which saw a decade of eastward-shifting global geopolitics, thereby pronouncing the ascendance of Southeast Asia, China and India in global affairs.
As there was a long estrangement between India and China, culminating in the boundary conflict in 1962, besides many other cases of intrusions inside Indian territory following the Sino-Indian war, the entire scenario continues to remain very tense. Unfortunately the recent emergence of the Doklam dispute in Bhutan has increased the likelihood of war between the two.
It is in this context that the launch of India’s “Look East Policy” in the early 1990s marked a strategic shift in the country’s vision of the world and its place in the evolving global economy.
In the first phase of the policy’s implementation, the main target was to create links with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which had economic, political and strategic importance in the Asia-Pacific region and the potential to become a major trade and investment partner for India.
For the second stage, the scope of the policy was extended to include the Far Eastern and Pacific regions, facilitating India’s enhanced links with a host of countries – China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Papua New Guinea and the Pacific island states. Thus India’s Look East Policy may be conveniently called a late successor to its earlier visions.
In terms of both the domestic economy and external economic relations, the onward course of the Look East Policy outlined the important contours of India’s progressive association with the region, particularly the formation in 1997 of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), which acts as a bridge between South and Southeast Asia.
India’s continuing engagement in the region aims at bringing together such mutually beneficial partnerships under the web of a Pan-Asian Free Trade Agreement for building an Asian Economic Community that would mark the formation of the third pole of the world economy, after the European Union and North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
Further, the Look East Policy has facilitated dialogue from political and security perspectives between India and East Asian nations through talks with ASEAN and the East Asia Summit (EAS), which are being held regularly, and India is being progressively integrated with the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) to promote regional security cooperation.
The other major factor that heavily influenced Southeast Asian perceptions was Indo-Soviet relations. The Soviet Union’s occupation of Afghanistan and India’s ambivalent attitude to this event, as well as its pro-Vietnam attitude after the Vietnamese defeat of the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia, reinforced perceptions that India was a global partner of the USSR. After the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1990-91, ASEAN members and other nations realized the geographical importance of India and the possibility of its becoming a major player, as they concluded that international relations could not be pursued along any single axis and that their security and stability required the cooperation of all big powers.
The 1991 financial crisis in India’s foreign-exchange reserves resulted in the opening of bold economic reforms propelling liberalization and globalization, which led to the sequential rise of India and the ASEAN nations recognizing the likely benefits they could draw from an association with New Delhi.
In 1996, India became a full dialogue partner of ASEAN and a formal member of ARF at the Jakarta Summit. India was brought on par with the US, the EU, China, Japan, South Korea and Australia, with consultation on issues concerning regional security and other political issues. This was the second phase, marked by deepening institutional bonds set out in many formal agreements.
In 2002, India fully participated at ASEAN’s Phnom Penh summit and afterward at the Bali summit in 2003. In 2004 at the Vietnam summit, India and ASEAN signed two documents: “Partnership for Peace, Progress and Shared Prosperity” and “Plan of Action to Implement the India-ASEAN Partnership”. Both these provided a conceptual and executive framework for developments in diverse areas and were roadmaps for the future.
The current East Asian Summit process started in 2005, and now has the format of ASEAN+3 (China, Japan and Korea) +3 (India, Australia and New Zealand). The second EAS in 2007 decided to adopt an agenda for regional cooperation on energy security.
Obviously, India’s evolving relations with ASEAN is a sum total of its agreements with individual members and also with the group as a whole in such fields as economy, defense, intra-region connectivity, and energy resources.
Thus India’s ongoing engagement with ASEAN countries must become broad-based and diversified to include even India’s northeastern regions. Some progress in this direction was the creation of rail and road transport links between India’s northeast areas and their eastern neighbors, such as the Tamu-Kalemyo Road linking Manipur and Myanmar, a feasibility study of a Manipur-Myanmar rail link, and other road links between India and Myanmar.
The larger project of Asian connectivity was proved possible by the ASEAN-India Car Rally covering 8,000 kilometers from Guwahati in Assam to Indonesia, with Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia and Singapore lying in between.
As for its financial commitments to projects of connectivity, India has not been too far behind, as evidenced by its credit of US$57 million for upgrading the Yangon-Mandalay section of Myanmar’s railways and investments in and commitments to cooperation in education, human resources, tourism and communications.
Evidently, India owes its responsibility to its eastern neighbors in its own enlightened interest.