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Editorial: India’s Look-East Policy

What is the nature of ‘national self-interest’ which is driving India’s Look East policy?

British Prime Minister David Cameron visited India in July soon after he took office, United States President Barack Obama made his high-profile visit earlier this month and more high profile visits are in the offing ‘“ French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev are to come calling soon. However, as important, if not more, has been India’s much quieter diplomacy with east and south-east Asian countries in the recent past.

It was in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, the end of the cold war, the emergence of the US as the sole superpower and the initiation of economic reforms in India, that the government of P V Narasimha Rao announced a diplomatic initiative, titled ‘Look East’, to build on stagnant relations with these countries. The first focus of this was the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and its member-countries, particularly Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia and Burma. In fact, it was this policy which changed India’s stance from one of supporting Aung San Suu Kyi to building relations with Burma’s military dictators. Today this policy has borne impressive fruits with India’s engagement with its eastern neighbors growing to include Vietnam, Cambodia, South Korea and Japan. In the past few months there have been high level official and military interactions between India and Japan, Malaysia, Vietnam, South Korea, Burma, the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore and Laos, apart from summit level meetings with ASEAN heads of state as part of the ASEAN-plus diplomatic architecture. Those visiting have been prime ministers and presidents, defense ministers and foreign ministers, and military chiefs.

There can be no denying that a certain complementarity of interests has emerged between India, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and some other countries over their common perception of China’s domination of Asia and the need to find strength in numbers. This is what propels Vietnam to offer a naval base to India and Japan to contemplate a nuclear agreement. However, the main driver of India’s Look East policy, both for this country and its partners, remains trade and economic issues. Trade with ASEAN countries was a mere $2.5 billion in 1993 when this policy was initiated and in 2010-11 it is estimated to cross $45 billion.

Given the warmth with which India is received in most of these countries and their eagerness to upgrade ties with India, this policy appears to have been a fair success both in terms of its economic returns and strategic achievements. The strength of these relations is evident from two sources ‘“ the unease of the Chinese authorities with India’s Look East diplomacy, which they claim is a euphemism for a ‘contain China policy’, and the attempt by Obama to leverage it for US’ own strategic interests.

In the early 1990s, when this policy was first enunciated, the justification given was that India’s foreign policy needed to move from ‘ideology’ to ‘national self-interest’. This was how the about-turn on democracy in Burma was explained. About two decades later, most commentators view the success of this Look East policy as a vindication of this move from idealism to self-interest. While India’s efforts to build relations with a wider range of countries are surely praiseworthy, it is necessary to call the bluff of such rationalizations.

India’s earlier engagements with other countries, whether in Asia or Africa, were also driven, to a large extent, by economic considerations ‘“ the need to protect the livelihoods of its people from the depredations of the economically advanced countries of Europe and North America who were looking to open markets, and access resources and cheap labor. Non-alignment and the recourse to foreign relations based on democratic principles and the rights of the poor were surely idealism, but founded on the economic need to defend the interests of our people, a vast majority of whom are poor and vulnerable.

The new economic compulsions or what is now termed ‘national self-interest’, are different from these earlier concerns and are meant to protect the trade relations and market access which is so important to India’s rising private sector. It is this shift in the class basis of India’s foreign policy which is cloaked under the banner of ‘national self-interest’. India’s foreign policy is now aligned closely with the interests of its business groups and large corporates which are, at once, exporting capital and welcoming foreign capital. In that sense, it is focused on promoting and protecting ‘special interests’ more than anything else. Thus, India’s Look East policy does not lead to greater people to people contacts but brings Indonesia’s Salem group to Nandigram, South Korea’s Posco to Orissa and cheap imports of palm-oil to Kerala, while it strengthens military rule over democratic forces in Burma. Some of the contradictions of aligning our foreign policy so closely with private sector interests are yet to show themselves fully. One part of this is probably due to the rapid rise of India’s middle classes who are enthusiastically aligning themselves with the interests of India’s private sector. Also, it is early days yet. However, even a cursory look at the history of other ‘great powers’ will clearly show that such aligning of foreign policy with the interests of capital can only bring misery to the people in the long run. This thought should sober our congratulations on India’s successful Look East policy.

(Courtesy: Economic and Political Weekly)

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