Analysis by Anant Mishra
The nation’s very first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, carefully laid the foundations of India’s future foreign policy. Surrounded by water shores on three sides, thus making it “critically” vulnerable from various geographical fronts, India’s existence depends on its dominance in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).
When analyzing India’s foreign policy, it becomes clear that what goes on in the East is important. While turning the pages of India’s ancient history, many kingdoms have looked east for trade over thousands of years. The Rashtrakutas, the Satavahnas, and even the Vijaynagar Empire looked east for trade. Many empires fighting for dominance have left their imprints, which can be seen today. Hence, it would not be wrong to say that, these Dravidian kingdoms, which fought for dominance, wrote the initial pages of India’s foreign policy.
Throughout the history, Europe has been the epicentre of trade, beginning from the British East India Company, to the European invasion of Sicily to oust the German armies, along with US expeditionary forces in the Pacific theatre of World War II.
Today, globalization has replaced the Cold War, and the European nations along with their allies have started focusing on the East again. Irrespective of all the outcomes and probable reasons for European and Atlantic nations swaying towards the East, Asian countries continued to enjoy a healthy relationship even in the late 1980s. It will be fair to conclude that the 21st century belongs to the “rise of Asian emerging economies”.
While receiving the incumbent Bangladesh President in 2014, Prime Minister Modi reaffirmed that, “India’s regional ambitions start with Bangladesh”. Thus, India’s focus on the East would include regions from Bangladesh to the United States in the Western Hemisphere along with the geography it covers.
India’s relations with ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) was quite progressive and productive up until the 70’s. At one point of time, India proved to be a viable candidate for a membership. However, the progress came to a standstill amid rapid political disagreements. Time-consuming deliberations followed by political reassurances and economic, regional, and political stability in India granted it an opportunity to become a Sectoral Dialogue partner for the ASEAN summit of 1992.
India’s relationship with ASEAN further aggravated from a “dialogue partner to a strategic partner” in 2012. Thus, it has further reinforced the previous commitments with greater will, enthusiasm and dynamic support and encouragement. This is quite visible via Prime Minister Modi’s international trips and statements.
When looking towards the East, the picture painted is peaceful, which then leaves an open door for greater cooperation and coordination within the states. Moreover, this does not hamper India’s commitment and interests in the Gulf, and other regions in the West, which India is profiting from, whether economically, socially or through strategic partnerships.
Today, ASEAN has the fourth largest trading partnership with India. The bilateral trade with India is now counting more than US$ 74.40 billion. Both parties have agreed to further increase trade by US$ 100 billion, while expressing their interests in increasing it to US$ 200 billion.
Having a strategic partnership with ASEAN, India is aggressively hosting ASEAN-centric conferences and international summits to discuss strategic and military issues. India has increasingly debated some of the strategic issues at the East Asian Summit, along with the ASEAN Regional Forum and ADDM+. It has also discussed maritime security issues at the ASEAN Maritime Forum. According to foreign policy experts, “India pursues defence and strategic relations with ASEAN aggressively”. Furthermore, India is also engaged in bilateral military alliances with many ASEAN nations.
Taking a step ahead, India continues to play a leading role in many other regional organizations such as the Mekong-Ganga Cooperation, which involves Cambodia, India, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam. It is also involved with the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation, which includes Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand. The heavy involvement in regional initiatives makes India an emerging leader, not just in South Asia but in the entire region as well.
The Challenges in Security
India is facing great challenges internally and on its borders. It’s therefore vital to continue eliminating terrorism, piracy, organized crime, human trafficking, arms trade, with effective treaties, agreements and policies. There was a great similarity between 9/11 and the Mumbai terrorist attack. Both were meticulously planned and executed by actors from militant organizations flourishing in other nations. For India, however, the militants were operating in its own backyard.
It is important for policy makers to address the issue of violent non-state actors in Pakistan effectively, which can be done through cooperation on defence, intelligence and law enforcement.
Today, India has evolved its “Look-East Policy” to “Act-East Policy” specifically in the defence and security mechanisms through bilateral interactions and global leadership initiatives at summits. Besides trade, India continues to pursue its maritime security surveillance and anti-piracy operations in its neighbourhood, while providing aid and assistance to neighbouring countries. By playing a larger role in South Asia, India is setting an example of the importance of alliances.
Anant Mishra is a former Youth Representative to the United Nations Security Council, and is now writing articles for a variety of magazines and papers from his base in New Delhi.