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Look East – Act East Dimension of India's Foreign Policy By Ambassador (Retd) M. Ganapat

C3S Paper No. 0028/ 2015

I consider it a great honour and privilege to visit the University of Pondicherry.  This is not my first visit to Pondicherry, but my first to your distinguished University

I am grateful to the Ministry of External Affairs for having asked me to visit the University of Pondicherry to deliver the lecture today under their Distinguished Lecture Series.

It is gracious of Prof Indumathy, Director of Studies and pro-Vice Chancellor to join us.  I am thankful to Prof Pannirselvame, Registrar for overseeing the elements of my visit.  My deep appreciation to Prof P Moorthy, Head of Department of School of Social Studies and International Studies for coordinating my visit and for the excellent arrangements.   Thank you Prof Shivakumar, for joining us today.   And it is a great pleasure to interact with students and scholars at this prestigious University.

While discussing the topic of my lecture with Prof Moorthy some two months ago, we thought that elaborating on India’s foreign policy towards the East should be an appropriate topic for the Lecture.  We agreed on “Look East – Act East Dimension of India’s Foreign Policy”.

The essence of India’s post Independence foreign policy was given thrust and direction by our first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. In the Constituent Assembly Debate on foreign policy he said “Ultimately foreign policy is the outcome of economic policy, and till that time, when India has properly evolved her economic policy, her foreign policy will be rather vague, rather inchoate, and will grope about”.   And situated as we are on the sealanes, it would not be out of place to again recall our first Prime Minister’s words when he emphasised that India’s independence and survival depended on India’s control of the Indian Ocean. In March 1958, Prime Minister Nehru said, “…. I ponder over our close links with the sea and how the sea has brought us together. From time immemorial the people of India have had very intimate connections with the sea. ……….. We cannot afford to be weak at sea … history has shown that whatever power controls the Indian Ocean has, in the first instance, India’s seaborne trade at her mercy, and in the second, India’s very independence itself”.  And from an Asian point of view, it would be appropriate to borrow Prime Minister Nehru’s remarks at the first Asian Relations Conference in New Delhi in March 1947.  He declared: “… Asia is again finding herself … one of the notable consequences of the European domination of Asia has been the isolation of the countries of Asia from one another. … Today this isolation is breaking down because of many reasons, political and otherwise …… Asia, after a long period of quiescence, has suddenly become important again in world affairs.. ….The old land routes almost ceased to function and our chief window to the outer world looked out on the sea routes which led to England. A similar process affected the other countries of Asia also. Their entire economy was bound up with some European imperialism or other; even culturally they looked towards Europe and not to their own friends and neighbours from whom they had derived so much in the past”.

From a Look East-Act East perspective, we might recall a bit of history.  The Kalingas had looked East for trade some 2000 years ago.  Last year happened to be the Millennium of the coronation of Rajendra Chola.  The Chola Empire stretched from India into many of the countries in today’s South East Asia.  We see the effects of their cultural and other ingress into these countries.  The Chola Empire could perhaps be seen as the first movement towards the evolution of India’s Look East-Act East policy.

Europe had been at the centre of global developments and dominated recorded history for some Centuries until the middle of the last Century when the United States came into its own in the latter stages of the World Wars.  The days of the Cold War are way behind us.   The Euro-Atlantic dimesion of global developments has since shifted eastwards.  While Europe and the Atlantic held sway until the 80’s, the Asia-Pacific region continued to move into the spotlight in the 90’s and beyond.  The 21st Century will belong to the Asia-Pacific and the India-Pacific regions.  In these intersects, India could and would play an important role.

The question arises as to where East in our foreign policy begins politically and geographically.  Until the last decade of the previous century, it was understood that the focus of our Look East policy would commence with ASEAN and the region around it.  We have now recalibrated this.  During the visit of the Bangladesh President to India last month, Prime Minister Narendra Modi mentioned “India’s Act East starts with Bangladesh”.  And during President Obama’s recently concluded visit earlier this week, the Prime Minister had in his remarks at the India-U.S. Business Summit on January 26, 2015 noted “For too long, India and the United States have looked at each other across Europe and the Atlantic. When I look towards the East, I see the western shores of the United States”. The Joint Statement – ”Shared Effort; Progress for All” issued during the US President’s visit on January 25, 2015 recalled “Noting that India’s ‘Act East Policy’ and the United States’ rebalance to Asia provide opportunities for India, the United States, and other Asia-Pacific countries to work closely to strengthen regional ties, the Leaders announced a Joint Strategic Vision to guide their engagement in the region”.  Thus, we see India’s Look East-Act East policy to include the region from Bangladesh to the Western seaboard of the USA and the countries within this geographical sweep.

India relations with the ASEAN region till the late 70s had been productive and there was even the possibility of India becoming a member of ASEAN.  However, political developments affected progress in this direction.  Long and hard discussions coupled with political and economic developments in India saw India becoming a Sectoral Dialogue partner of ASEAN in 1992.   And in 1994, then Prime Minister Narasimha Rao outlined the broad contours of India’s Look East policy during his visit to Singapore.  Development and expansion of our Look East policy with ASEAN as its core thereafter became an important theme in our foreign policy.  In 1996, India became a full Dialogue partner of ASEAN. Then External Affairs Minister Inder Kumar Gujral remarked at the first ASEAN-India Dialogue meeting that “partnership with ASEAN will have an impact on India’s economic, political and security related involvement in these larger, concentric coalitions around ASEAN, in East Asia and in the Asia-Pacific”.  India became ASEAN’s Summit level partner in 2002.  We celebrated the 20th Anniversary of the ASEAN-India Dialogue Partnership and the 10th Anniversary of ASEAN-India Summit-level partnership by hosting the ASEAN-India Commemorative Summit in New Delhi in December 2012 under the theme ‘ASEAN-India Partnership for Peace and Shared Prosperity’.  And our interaction with ASEAN was concomitantly elevated to the level of a Strategic Partnership in 2012. While inaugurating the Summit, then Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh said “We see our partnership with ASEAN not merely as a reaffirmation of ties with neighbouring countries or as an instrument of economic development, but also as an integral part of our vision of a stable, secure and prosperous Asia and its surrounding Indian Ocean and Pacific regions”.

India’s strategic aggrandisement with ASEAN received impetus with our membership of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) in 1996.   ASEAN overruled objections from some of its other partners on India’s admission to the ARF.   The scope of our Look East philosophy was expanded from a mere trade and economic engagement to include issues of strategic and geopolitical significance.  And the geographical reach was extended eastwards towards Australia and Oceania in a couple of years.

At a book launch in November 2003, then External Affairs Minister Yashwant Sinha noted “It was only in the last decade of the last century that Prime Minister Narasimha Rao came out with his Look East policy and after that we have been engaging countries in East Asia.…….. This was interpreted somewhat narrowly as Indo-ASEAN engagement. We felt that if we engage the ten countries of ASEAN, that was engagement with East Asia. ……… We have entered Phase-II of our Look East policy, which is both, more comprehensive in its coverage territorially and materially. In terms of territorial expanse, besides the ten countries in ASEAN, we are engaged with North East Asia, with Japan, with China and the Koreas. Down South, there is much greater engagement with Australia and with New Zealand. Therefore, when we talk of India-East Asia engagement we are including this whole region”.

Look East is a passive adumbration.  Act East incorporates greater action and dynamism.  This has been brought about in the recent statements of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj has expanded on this thought.   And when we look at the region to our East, barring few fulminations, this area is relatively peaceful and cohesive for our engagement.  This does not diminish our extensive contacts with the countries in the Gulf, Europe and elsewhere where we continue to be engaged economically, socially and from a geostrategic point of view.

The 12th ASEAN-India Summit at Nya Pyi Taw expressed satisfaction with the progress in the implementation of the ASEAN-India Plan of Action, the ASEAN-India Partnership for Peace, Progress and Shared Prosperity for the period 2010-2015. The third ASEAN-India Plan of Action for the period 2016-2021 to serve as an action-oriented document to further deepen the ASEAN-India Strategic Partnership is under preparation and it would build on and strengthen the strong sense of community between the peoples of ASEAN Member States and India.  At the 12th ASEAN-India Summit, Prime Minister Narendra Modi recalibrated our policy towards the region thus: “Externally, India’s ‘Look East Policy’ has become ‘Act East Policy’”.

ASEAN is the 4th largest trading partner of India.   Bilateral trade between ASEAN and India reached US$ 74.40 billion in 2013-2014 (Ministry of Commerce figures).  Both sides have renewed their commitment to arrive at a target of US$ 100 billion by 2015.  And they have expressed their desire to see a trade turnover of US$ 200 billion by 2022.  Investment from ASEAN into India was around US$ 25 billion in the period 2007-14 while from India into ASEAN, it was over US$ 30 billion.    We have an Agreement on Goods with ASEAN.  The recently concluded Agreement on Trade in Services and the Agreement on Investment of the Framework Agreement on Comprehensive Economic Cooperation between ASEAN and India and their early operationalisation should allow for greater opportunities towards expansion of trade and economic cooperation between India and ASEAN.  At the Nya Pyi Taw Summit, the importance of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) as a key instrument in realising the ASEAN Economic Community was emphasised with a need to expedite the ongoing RCEP negotiations. The RCEP involves ASEAN and its 6 Dialogue Partners. Timely implementation of the ASEAN-India FTA was underscored.  The recent appointment of an Indian Ambassador to deal exclusively with ASEAN and the East Asia Summit process is timely and opportune.

As a Strategic Partner of ASEAN, India is actively associated with various ASEAN-led fora dealing with defence and strategic issues. These include the East Asia Summit, the ASEAN Regional Forum, ADDM+ (ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting Plus) and the Expanded ASEAN Maritime Forum.  Our defence ties with the region has expanded significantly.  We have bilateral defence cooperation activities with ASEAN and other regional countries.

Besides, organisations involving ASEAN as a whole, India has taken a leading role in other regional fora.  These include the Mekong-Ganga Cooperation (MGC, in which Cambodia, India, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam are members), the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC involving Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand) and other organisations.

With Bangladesh, the first port in our Act East policy, relations have been excellent with the Awami League in office. We hope to address some of the pending issues on the table at the earliest.  Relations have settled into some quietude with the change in Government in Sri Lanka.  However, areas of concern to those in Sri Lanka and in India have to be addressed as soon as the new administration settles down in office.   The recent visit of the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister to New Delhi and his statements do offer considerable hope.  More high level visits and discussions are on the anvil.

Myanmar occupies an important geostrategic position, neighbouring our North East.  Relations, which had been somewhat dormant, have received considerable fillip over the last couple of years.  And Myanmar could be involved to advantage in the development of India’s North East Region.  Issues of connectivity, cultural contacts and commercial ties predominated the discussions during Prime Minister’s meeting with President Thein Sein in Nya Pyi Taw in November 2014. The leaders reviewed the progress of major connectivity projects between the two countries including the India Myanmar Thailand trilateral highway and Kaladan Multimodal Transport Project.  On completion, these projects could be a gateway for the States of the North East to the world outside. Prime Minister also met Aung Sang Syu Kyi.

We have excellent relations with Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia and other ASEAN members.  While our interaction with Indonesia has been productive, we need to give some more ballast to our partnership with this important ASAEN member – where we have two newly elected leaders with similar approaches to developmental and strategic issues. The visits of President Pranab Mukherji to Vietnam and to India by the Vietnamese Prime Minister last year saw further consolidation of our strategic partnership with Vietnam, a crucial partner and friend in that region.

The mood and developments in Sino-Indian relations will continue to be an important element in India’s foreign policy.  While Prime Minister Modi went out of his way to make the visit of President Xi Jinping to India in September 2014 a success, the incidents at the border did cast some shadow on what otherwise would have been excellent visit.  The recent sponsored reports in the Chinese media post-President Obama visit following the release of the Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region has seen the Indian media go into a tizzy.  However, the opportunity to discuss the entire gamut of India-China relations standing on its own merits irrespective of the strength of India’s relations with other countries will be available during External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj’s visit to Beijing next week for bilateral discussions and for the Russia-India-China Trilateral.  Prime Minister Modi is expected to visit Beijing by the middle of this year.  Hopefully, the Chinese will not queer the pitch in the run up to the visit. China is India’s largest trading partner with a trade turnover of US$ 65.8 billion.  The balance is heavily weighted in China’s favour.  Investments have also been rising.  The border issue will continue to be a major irritant. Despite five major border related documents and 17 Special Representative Talks, no breakthrough has been in sight.  The Chinese side has not been willing to provide its version of the maps relating to the line of Actual Control.  Interestingly, the McMahon Line was drawn up 100 years ago in 1914.  And there are provocations, even though no bullet has been fired.  Sino-Pak relations will continue to be closely watched. Our reaction to various issues relating to China in our interactions should be measured, but more importantly confident and self-assured.

The excellent rapport between the Prime Ministers of Japan and India will continue to augur well for India-Japan Special Strategic and Global partnership. While Japan ranks 16th as India’s trading partner.  Investments would play an important role in this partnership.  We have formalised our defence related cooperation with Japan.  The next couple of rounds of discussions to finalise the civil nuclear agreement with Japan should lead to the conclusion of this important document.  The Japanese Foreign Minister was in India last week to co-Chair the India-Japan Strategic Dialogue and to follow up on the decisions arrived at during Prime Minister’s visit to Japan. India’s relations with South Korea will continue to be governed with trade and economic relations predominating.

The oft-repeated statement of Indo-Australian relations being seen through the prism of the 3 Cs viz. cricket, the Commonwealth and curry is relevant but not predominant today.  We have moved since then into a comprehensive engagement shedding the prejudices of the past to  embrace the opportunities of the future. Bilateral visits by the Prime Minister’s of both countries to their respective countries within a span of two months last year saw significant forward movement on a spectrum of issues.  Most importantly, the civil nuclear agreement was concluded during Prime Minister Tony Abbot’s visit to India in September 2014 providing for supply of Uranium by Australia for our nuclear power plants once the Administrative Arrangements are in place. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Australia was significantly the first by an Indian Prime Minister to Australia in 29 years – Shri Rajiv Gandhi had last visited Australia in 1986.

Fiji occupies an important place in the East due to the strong presence of the Diaspora.  Since Smt. Indira Gandhi’s visit to Fiji in 1981, no Indian Prime Minister had visited Suva. The Fijian side warmly welcomed Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s to Suva in November 2014 – the visit was taking place after 33 years.  He was given the honour of being the first leader to address the “newly re-opened and re-invigorated” Parliament. While in Suva, Prime Minister hosted a Regional India- Pan-Pacific Meeting with 14 South Pacific Island Leaders.  A number of measures were announced to strengthen India’s outreach with that region.  A significant outcome of the meeting was the agreement to hold a Forum for India – Pacific Islands Cooperation (FIPIC) on a regular basis with the next meeting in 2015 in India.

I would not like to spend much time in discussing the recently concluded visit of President Obama to India and bilateral India-US relations, as it had been extensively covered.  Suffice to say that the visit was exceptionally successful.  We had a US President as the Chief Guest for our Republic Day.  A US President in office was also visiting India twice during his term of office.   Both were a historic first.  The two leaders were also meeting for the fourth time within a short span of four months – twice bilaterally and twice on the margins of international meets.  The visit saw significant results and agreements in the areas of trade and investment, education, infrastructure development, civil nuclear deal, clean and renewable energy, defence, counterterrorism, among others. Discussions on many global and regional issues saw a meeting of minds between the leaders.  And there was perfect chemistry between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Barack Obama.

In terms of multilateral engagements with the region, India as one of the founding members, alongwith Australia and Indonesia, has a major responsibility in guiding the role and direction of the 20-member Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA; previously Indian Ocean Region – Association for Regional Cooperation or IOR-ARC).  The IORA Ministers agreed to six priority areas of cooperation in 2011. These are: maritime safety and security, trade and investment facilitation, fisheries management, disaster risk management, academic and science & technology cooperation, and tourism and cultural exchanges.  The recently acquired dynamism in the organisation should be consolidated towards delivery of a result oriented action plan.

India was unable to accede to APEC due to a moratorium declared by the organisation in the early 90’s. President Xi Jinping had, during the course of his visit to India, invited Prime Minister to the APEC Summit in Shanghai in November 2014.  However, there was no follow up.  During President Obama’s visit to India earlier this week, the US side expressed its readiness to support India’s membership of APEC.  It is expected that there would be greater support for India’s accession in the run up to the next APEC Summit in the Philippines.

The challenges confronting India and its partners in the East should lead to enhanced joint cooperation and action in confronting the malefic effects of international terrorism, piracy, organised crime, drug trafficking and arms trading. The need to eliminate the scourge of international terrorism found greater resonance following 9/11 and 26/11.   The need to combat the rise of the IS, the lone wolf attack in Sydney, the Paris terrorist attack etc have preoccupied minds of policy planners. Clandestine proliferation of nuclear materials and missile technology has been a cause for worry.  We hope to get greater support from the regional members to the Indian draft document of a Comprehensive Convention for International Terrorism at the UN. The question of freedom of navigation and overflight has been a subject of discussion within the region and outside.  The security dimension of our Look East-Act East policy has been well integrated into the available security architectures.  Besides security related discussions, Indian assistance has been pursued through aggressive EZ Surveillance and anti-piracy patrolling.  India has also been involved in providing support to countries through hydrographic surveys.  It has provided assistance in disaster management.  The most notable and visible activity was the Indian Navy’s support to Sri Lanka and Indonesia following the Tsunami in 2004 – Australian defence and security analysts saw in this as India’s arrival onto the world stage as a naval superpower in the region.

The role of the over 6-million strong Indian Diaspora in the East in acting as a bridge and platform in developing close partnership with the countries of their adoption and in the economic development of India needs no reiteration.  Their identification with India was evident in the enthusiastic reception given by the Diaspora members to Prime Minister in Australia and Myanmar and Fiji in November 2014.

One area where India has done exceptionally well has been the projection of its soft power towards the East – be it through religious exposure (both Hinduism and Buddhism -the temples at Preah Vihar, Angkor Vat, Bali etc; and to some extent, Islam to that region travelled through India); cultural exchanges (traditional and Bollywood); arts and crafts among others.  India’s arts, culture and values have been well received and supported.

We have based our ties with the East on the platform of a vigorous engagement through the areas of:

  1. Economy (including trade and investment, financial services, banking);

  2. Engineering (Infrastructure, construction etc);

  3. Electronics (including IT and ITES and communications);

  4. Environment (Climate change, defence and security);

  5. Energy (both renewable and non-renewable and nuclear);

  6. Exploration and Exploitation (Mineral resources);

  7. Education (University, Vocational and skills development); and

  8. Entertainment (leading to greater people-to-people contacts including through cultural cooperation, tourism, sports etc); among others.

This engagement has paid good dividends and we need to continue to maintain the momentum in this direction.  This will have its own results in providing for our growth, development and security.

Thank you.  I will be glad to take any questions that you might have and our discussions could continue.

Courtesy: Lecture organised under the Distinguished Lecture Series of the PD Division of the Ministry External Affairs University of Pondicherry on January 29, 2015

[M. Ganapathi is a retired Ambassador who served in Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India. He is associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies.]

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