Revisiting East

Revisiting East
January 2001

India’s re-engagement with South East Asia has come not a moment too soon.1 The Indian Prime Minister’s visit to Vietnam and Indonesia, the first since Mr. P.V. Narasimha Rao in 1995 to visit the region, are indicators of the radical changes that have come about with the end of the Cold War and the emergence of a new international security paradigm. Perhaps this is the point that makes the subtext of the current sojourn. Though no formal official acknowledgement is forthcoming, the undercurrent of a desire to shore up what is considered to be the informal club of Asian countries that are wary of China is all but obvious. Both India and Vietnam have faced Chinese invasions, Indonesia has concerns arising from its influential Chinese community.2 South-East Asia initiative also puts India in a position to chart new directions in regional co-operation. As the biggest Islamic nation, Indonesia can be India’s bridge with the Islamic world given India’s congenital woes based on religion and religious fundamentalism of one kind or the other.3 The visit, besides reflects a change in India’s foreign policy postures which has a large bearing on South Asian security. Though India kept itself distanced from the typical Third World policy stances of the eighties and the early nineties, its profile in the international system grew visibly in the past few years. While India sees a great opportunity in terms of trade expansion, it has reasons to feel positive about South-East Asian nations wanting India to play a larger, stabilising role in the region.4 The timing, close on the heels of the visit of the Vietnamese President to Beijing, and no matter what the security advisors say is crucial, particularly in the context of the visit of Li Peng, the second most important Chinese leader to India. This visit is, therefore being described as a part of an parallel effort to reduce the influence of China in the region, and to enable India establish a larger role in ASEAN.5

The strategic importance of the countries in the Prime minister’s itinerary is also significant that reflects India’s keen desire to consolidate and expand its ties with two countries occupying important positions in South-East. Vietnam is chairman of the standing committee of ASEAN with which India is trying to establish close links. The opportunities for cooperation to mutual benefit are immense in respect of both Vietnam and Indonesia. Vietnam for example, has been seeking India’s assistance in setting up nuclear power plants and in peaceful utilisation of nuclear power. Besides, there is scope for co-operation in information technology, oil exploration and tourism. In Indonesia, which no Indian Prime Minister has visited after Rajiv Gandhi did in 1986, India’s ties with the Islamic world are bound to feature in Mr Vajpayee’s talks with President Wahid. An important Islamic country, it can help considerably in keeping these on an even keel.6

The Indian Prime Minister has described his South East Asia visit as a part of the “look East” policy. The semantic lure of the “Look East” policy which India had formally announced several years ago to define its diplomatic dealings with South-East Asia in particular, laced the official discourse during the Indian Prime Minister’s current tour of that region.”7 The Prime minister took the occasion to trace India’s relationship with the nations of the region to strong civilisational and cultural linkages going back thousand of years. “We are also closely cooperating with them in international and regional forum, including ASEAN..”8 India is a dialogue partner of ASEAN and has been having frequent high-level exchanges with East Asian countries.

Indian Prime minister’s visit to Vietnam need to be looked in the context of Hanoi-Beijing links. The two countries have delineated their land border and the waters of the Gulf of Tonkin. Progress were made in respect of disputed Spartleys in the South China Sea. As the Vietnam-China equations develop India too will do well to place its own interests first in South East Asia. Vietnam wants to accelerate its goal of “diplomacy serving economic development in 2001.” Vietnam and India have long entertained traditional, close and reliable relations and multi-faceted co-operation. These relations are now continuing to develop well for the benefit of people of both the countries and in the interest of peace, stability, cooperation and development in the region. Currently, the two countries are making efforts to promote economics, trade, finance, credit, education-training, science-technology, agriculture, forestry and fishery. These relations have proven to be highly effective in promoting economic development and developing human resources for Vietnam. The Inaugural Ministerial Meeting on Ganga Mekong Cooperation took place in Vientiane at the initiative of India and Southeast Asian countries in November last. Ministers from six countries agreed on the steps to be taken to promote and increase the efficiency of the mutli-faceted cooperation. Though new, information technology is a very important area of cooperation and a central component of Indo-Vietnam relations. At the ninth meeting of the Vietnam-India Inter-governmental Committee for Economic, Cultural and Scientific-technical Cooperation, held in New Delhi in 1999, the two governments agreed to the establishment of the Joint Working Group on Information Technology in order to materialise potential in this area.9

After a day of discussions with Vietnam’s Communist leaders, and with no reference to China, India offered Vietnam strategic partnership and assistance in all areas of development main thrusts being on “oil, technology, agriculture, and atomic energy for peaceful purposes.”10 India has offered to provide equipment for a nuclear science laboratory in Vietnam besides signing agreements in the fields of culture, tourism and peaceful uses of nuclear energy. Outlining the scope of Indo-Vietnam cooperation, the Vietnamese Prime Minister Mr. Phan Van Khai, said that Vietnam and India need to work together for building a peaceful and stable regional and international environment “without causing determine to any third party.”11 India also committed “requisite capital” for the development of transportation, telecommunications, railways, power generation and water supply in Vietnam. Addressing an India-Vietnam Joint Business Council meeting, the Indian Prime Minister said Vietnam was a “critical element” in India’s plans to forge stronger ties with ASEAN. “It is pivotal for our look East policy.”12

The trip to Indonesia is seen as more than an effort to revive civilisational and cultural links. As the largest member of the ASEAN, Indonesia deserves to be befriended on other grounds as well, given especially the economic and political challenges of its endeavour to become a full-fledged democracy under its President Mr. Abdurrrahman Wahid.13 “It’s time to work for a longer market configuration for Asia.”14 There is a strong case for a much closer coordination, cooperation and collaboration between India and Indonesia, especially during the period of transition in Indonesia which has to implement constitutional, political, electoral, economic and social reforms all together within the shortest possible time. “There is so much that Indonesia can learn from the Indian experience in evolving a constitution, institution building and Centre-State relations… they can learn from India’s experiences and mistakes.”15 Though many Western countries were providing all possible financial and technical assistance in this regard, the country need to incorporate systems and institutions that are relevant in the local context. “Given the similarities between India and Indonesia, such a partnership would be mutually beneficial.” 16

A Consensus seems to be emerging within the Association of South East Asian Nations for a separate summit meeting with India. Both Vietnam and Indonesia endorsed India’s claim to the United Nations Security Council as a permanent member. Vietnam went further in pledging its support for India’s “membership on all important economic and political forums in the (Southeast Asian) region” while reiterating its support for New Delhi’s entry into the United Nations Security Council.17 Indonesia foresaw a greater degree of engagement between the two with multilateral agencies i.e. the SAARC and the ASEAN taking the cue for coordination in trade and developing a free and open dialogue between themselves.18

The bottom line that emerges out of the latest high level diplomatic initiative is that India must set its goals in South East Asia. New Delhi’s “look east” policy is still to take off. There has been a suspension of contacts following New Delhi’s frequently changing chief executives, its emerging diplomatic engagements with the US and nuclear tests of 1998 as well as the economic crisis in the region. For South East Asia and India this suspension has taken place at a time of furious changes in bilateral, regional and global realities.

India need not be a strategic competitor in the region. India’s interests in the Indian Ocean are well known. It has no territorial problems with any South East Asian country. It should plan on keeping things that way as trade and commercial links with the region are forged. If the “look east” policy is to yield something, India through its emerging economic clout and strategic potential should be able to compel South East Asia to “look West.” 19
1Edit, The Times of India 13 January 2001

2Security is subtext of PM’s S-E Asian visit; Manoj Joshi The Times of India 10 January 2001

3Charting New Ties; Edit, The Pioneer 16 January 2001

4Eastern Eye; Edit, The Hindustan Times 15 January 2001

5Sonia Trikha; The Indian Express 7 January 2001

6Looking East; The Pioneer 09 January 2001. The Prime Minister’s trip “will give a sharper focus to India’s ‘Look East’ policy,” the Indian Foreign Secretary ST Devare told reporters. The Times of India 5 January 2001

7Edit, The Hindu 13 January 2001

8The Hindu 7 January 2001

9Written answers of the Vietnamese Prime Minister Mr. Phan Van Khai to questions submitted to him by The Hindu The Hindu 10 January 2001

10The Indian Express 09 January 2001

11Amit Baruah; The Times of India 10 January 2001

12The Hindu 10 January 2001

13Sense and Sentiments; Edit, The Hindu 13 January 2001

14Mehru Jaffer; The Statesman 11 January 2001

15Mr. G. Ravi Rajan, Resident Coordinator of the United Nations in Jakarta. The Hindu 6 January 2001

16Mr. G. Ravi Rajan, Resident Coordinator of the United Nations in Jakarta. The Hindu 6 January 2001

17The Vietnamese Prime Minister, Mr. Phan Van Khai, quoted in The Hindu 09 January 2001

18Excerpts of an interview of Indonesian President Mr. Abdurrahman Wahid to The Hindu, The Hindu 13 January 2001

19Amit Baruah; The Hindu 7 January 2001
Compiled By

Aravinda Acharya