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India: Time to relook the East

12 Jun India: Time to relook the East

The first India-China meeting since Prime Minister Narendra Modi took power in New Delhi last month has hogged headlines for its significance of thawing bilateral relations between the two Asian giants. Mr Modi’s top foreign policy objectives of using economic diplomacy to fulfill India’s national interests, of which maintaining positive relations with China is key, could mean relations with its Southeast Asian neighbours may need to take a backseat.

ASEAN waiting in the wings

India’s ‘Look East’ policy, now more than two decades old, was introduced by former prime minister P.V. Narasimha Rao as part of India’s efforts to cultivate the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) nations and boost its standing as a regional power to act as a counterweight to China’s growing influence in the region. China’s assertive behaviour over its South China Sea claims, and recent altercations with Vietnam and the Philippines have drawn renewed attention to India’s role in the region.

In an interview with The Economic Times, India’s leading business newspaper, Vietnamese ambassador to India Nguyen Thanh Tan suggested that India, as a benign power, should enhance its presence and involvement in Southeast Asia to balance the rise of China in the region. Vietnam has sought to cultivate friendly relations with India by building on the emerging giant’s economic interests in offshore oil. Both countries are also making efforts to boost defence cooperation with one another. New Delhi has offered Hanoi US$100 million (S$125 million) to purchase patrol vessels, and negotiations are under way for Vietnam to buy India-Russia BrahMos cruise missiles. India has also stepped up its engagement with its other East Asian and Southeast Asian partners including Japan, Indonesia and South Korea.

Modi: China’s old friend

Still, although this recharged engagement has become more active and strategic in recent years, India’s foreign policy under Mr Modi could shift.

Lauded as a friend of China since his days as Chief Minister of Gujarat, Mr Modi’s strategy of using economics to mend New Delhi’s ties with Beijing aligns with his domestic agenda of getting India back on a fast-growth track. But a renewed emphasis on building up close economic ties with China could distract India from its Look East policy. This comes at an unfortunate time for ASEAN countries that are looking desperately to larger powers, other than the US, to help manage China’s growing interests and presence in the region.

India’s Look East policy should not stop at the borders of China. It needs to start giving economic and strategic priority to countries in Southeast Asia, a region where it has yet to take full advantage of historical and cultural commonalities, in order to support its greater economic goals. In return India’s enhanced presence in Southeast Asia could bring some form of stability back to the region.


(2014) Regional security assessment: Key developments and trends in Asia-Pacific security, The International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Chaudhury, Dipanjan Roy (2014) India’s enhanced presence will help to stabilise Southeast Asia: Nguyen Thanh Tan, Vietnamese Ambassador to India, The Economic Times, 9 June 2014.

Panda, Ankit (2014) Chinese Foreign Minister makes inroads with Modi Government, The Diplomat, 10 June 2014.

Maini, Tridivesh Singh (2014) India’s Look East policy in need of a relook, East Asia Forum, 12 April 2014.