Does India’s foreign policy suffer from a lack of consistent and innovative outreach policies in Southeast Asia?
At a recent East-West Centre conference in Yangon, most participants seemed to feel the answer was yes. Such criticisms are worth mentioning because India’s immediate neighbours, such as Nepal and Sri Lanka often complain that New Delhi intervenes a touch too much in their internal affairs. Some go so far as to argue that China, in spite of being more powerful than India, does not exhibit the same hegemonistic tendencies.
India’s approach to Southeast Asia has been replete with good intentions. The ‘Look East’policy introduced by former Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao in the 1990s was both farsighted and pragmatic, compelled by economic and strategic motives. Subsequent governments led by the BJP and Congress have acknowledged the importance of Southeast Asia. Efforts toward economic integration have taken place through the conclusion of FTAs and a large number of security agreements. India’s private sector has also tried to make inroads into the region. Indian businesses have a strong presence in countries like Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, and have recently begun to make their presence in Myanmar.
Yet there are a number of areas where India has failed miserably.
First, India has been slow to counter Beijing’s attempts to expand its own sphere of influence in the region. India’s position on the South China Sea dispute has been characteristically ambiguous and reluctant. Sabre-rattling would be both unnecessary and counterproductive. Yet New Delhi should support countries like Vietnam and the Philippines who are keen to counter China’s increasing assertiveness.India could also enhance its cooperation with allies like Japan, who are similarly trying to increase their foothold in Southeast Asia. In Myanmar, there is growing resentment among locals over China’s growing economic presence, and this creates opportunity that India can capitalise on.
By contrast, Beijing has established a significant presence in India’s immediate neighbourhood, which includes states such as Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bangladesh. India’s blunders in the neighbourhood — including, for instance,its less-than-stringent attitude toward infrastructure projects — cannot be blamed on China, but it would be naïve to argue that China’s forays into South Asia are purely a matter of business.
Second, India has failed to take advantage of the commonalities, both historical and cultural, that it shares with countries in Southeast Asia. In Myanmar,the tomb of Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar is well-maintained, yet bereft of visitors. There are a large number of persons of Indian extract who could act as India’s goodwill ambassadors, but the government has shied away from backing them.
Third, India should also be more aggressive in advertising its pro-democracy stance. India cannot afford to avoid doing business with authoritarian regimes. Yet in countries like Myanmar it should tacitly back democratic forces. As a multi-ethnic society, with a large Muslim minority, India cannot afford to stay quiet about the atrocities being committed against the Rohingya Muslims.
India’s Look East policy urgently needs to be revamped. Integrating Northeast India with Myanmar is one possibility which has been touted over the past decade. India first opened channels of communication with Myanmar in the 1990s, when it realised that it could not continue to cede space to China in a country that was India’s geographical gateway to Southeast Asia. Yet the implementation of closer ties has been extremely slow. Without greater connectivity with Myanmar, India cannot achieve a greater presence in Myanmar and other parts of Southeast Asia.
India must improve connectivity through road and air links to make its presence felt in what is emerging as a strong battleground state in Southeast Asia. At present, there are very few direct flights from India to Yangon. New Delhi should encourage its Northeastern states to increase economic and cultural interactions with Myanmar. Chambers of Commerce are already making earnest efforts to do so, but they should get greater government backing.
Hopefully the next government in New Delhi will prioritise economic and strategic ties with the ASEAN region, especially in countries like Myanmar. For this it is imperative that India’s economy gets back on track, and that New Delhi gives priority to its own strategic goals and not the sensitivities of China.
Tridivesh Singh Maini is a New Delhi based columnist and independent foreign policy analyst.