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India's Look East Policy

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India has an announced 'look east' policy. It was first enunciated in the 1990s when the country was being buffeted by western winds that sought to trap it in the diplomatic quagmire caused by Jammu and Kashmir. Late Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao, the much underrated practitioner of statecraft, began the use of this term. He used it in terms of the need for a few constant pegs to Indian diplomatic and security interests. At that time nothing seemed to show a direction. The world had recently witnessed the end of the cold war and the emergence of new countries from the debris of the disintegrating Soviet Union was a very real reality. It was a world quite unlike anything seen in at least a couple of human generations.


In this world India was seeking to find its place under the sun. There was as much confusion within the country as there was globally. Little that was happening made much sense to most practitioners of the diplomatic craft. India was treading new grounds as it had only recently opened up its economy, gingerly. Diplomatic winds were not so favourable, as Pakistan and China teamed up to tie India down by the wrists. Even as China proliferated nuclear weapons technology to Pakistan, the diplomatic campaign on Jammu and Kashmir pinned down India as a matter of routine. In the search for an alternative India seemed to find East Asia as receptive as it was concerned by China's rising stock. There was finally some commonality of interests with someone sharing India's concerns and vision.

Japan and Vietnam have had a historically fractured relationship with China, whether in the imperial, nationalist or the communist phases. Even as there have been territorial problems between China and these countries, the relationship seems to boil at the slightest instigation. India, on the other hand, has always had good relations with these countries. Historically India has always had good relations with China, making it the only conflict free neighbourly relationship in the world. But that was to change in the middle of the 20th century when the Communist Party of China came to power under Mao Zedong. A certain unease now remains between the two countries. Which makes for a 'look east' policy coloured by a certain prism.

It is not in India's national interest to be drawn into a military alliance that has a singular motivation – checking China. India's interests are far too complex to be reduced to a single agenda. At the same time it is not in Indian economic interests that there be a tense or conflictual situation in East Asia. The future of economic growth, global and regional, depends to a large extent on free and fair trade between East Asia and the rest of the world. A military complication precludes that in one stroke. Even as India and some East Asian countries are drawn together by the power of common fears, there are national security and economic interests that override single agenda concerns. It would be an insult to India, its history and its civilisational ethos, if it were to be drawn into a hyped alliance, only because some friends said so.

 


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