On the 26th January 1950, India celebrated its republic day. It was the day when the constitution of India came into effect, and Dr Rajendra Prasad took oath as the first President of independent India. The President of Indonesia, Kusno Sukarno, was invited to grace the occasion as the Chief Guest.
The World War II had ended and the cold war had just begun. The world was divided between the two powers – the Eastern block (dominated by the Soviet Union) and the Western block (led by the United States of America and its NATO allies).
At the time, Jawaharlal Nehru was India’s first Prime Minister, and the architect of India’s foreign policy. While the world chose to align with either of the two power blocs, he chose to assert India’s independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity, and security through this pro-active policy of ‘non-alignment.’ Through this policy, India quietly engaged with the rest of the world on a diplomatic, economic and humanitarian level.
Nehru’s strategy was based on pragmatism, as much as on his strategic vision. As if he were a clairvoyant foretelling a prophesy, he foresaw the changing geopolitical dynamics in the South East and the Asia-Pacific. As he wrote in his polemic, the Discovery of India:
The Pacific is likely to take the place of the Atlantic in the future as the nerve centre of the world. Though not directly a Pacific state, India will inevitably exercise an important influence there. India will also develop as the centre of economic and strategic importance in a part of the world which is going to develop in the future…India will have to play a very great part in security problems of Asia and the Indian Ocean, more especially of the Middle East and South East Asia.
His words almost sound prophetic. For, today, as India celebrates its 69th Republic Day under Prime Minister Modi, ten Heads of States of the Association Of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) grace the occasion as Chief Guests, ostensibly to engage with and foster the economic and a strategic partnership between India and the block of ASEAN nations.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union and a break down of the cold war order, a new, ‘multi-polar world’ emerged, opening up new avenues and vistas for India to engage with the South East Asian nations. In 1992, as India entered the phase of economic liberalisation under the Prime Ministership of P V Narasimha Rao, it adopted a ‘Look East Policy.’
At the same time, Singapore, concerned about China’s claim to much of the South China Sea as it’s own, and the modernisation of Indonesian and Malaysian military, was reorienting its own foreign policy. India’s presence was seen to be important to ‘counterbalance and help stabilise the region,’ especially vis-a-vis China. In addition, India with its large pool of human capital and undeveloped, unexplored market presented an unprecedented economic opportunity. Given this, Singapore embraced and welcomed India enthusiastically.
As Singapore positioned itself as a de facto regional sponsor, it played a central role in welcoming India to engage multilaterally with South East Asia. Indonesia too had supported India’s multilateral engagement with South East Asia. Consequently, in 1995, India became a full dialogue partner of ASEAN, and in 1996, a member of the larger group – the ASEAN Regional Forum – where the United States and China were also dialogue partners.
Over the years, what started out as a multilateral engagement for economic cooperation emerged into a broader strategic engagement. The scope of India’s ‘Look East Policy’ expanded. As Yashwant Sinha, the then Minister for External Affairs articulated:
While the first phase … was ASEAN-centred and focussed primarily on trade and investment linkages,’ the ‘new phase of this policy is characterised by an expanded definition of “East,” extending from Australia to East Asia … The new phase also marks a shift from trade to wider economic and security issues
In 2012, at the India ASEAN commemorative summit, under Prime Ministers Manmohan Singh, India was elevated to a strategic partner where the ambit of cooperation extended to political and security cooperation. This relationship has evolved further under Prime Minister Modi.
In a strategic shift, India is building its navy to become a maritime power and is increasingly starting to see itself as a ‘net provider of regional security.’ The agreements signed with the Government of Philippines, under President Rodrigo Duterte, primarily in the area of defence, are a case in point. India has made phenomenal strides on the defence and security front.
Consequently, India’s influence in the ‘Indo-pacific’ has seen dramatic gains, both economically and strategically under Mr Modi. Going forward, it is expected that India would pursue a stronger defence partnership ASEAN countries in the coming years – possibly in collaboration with Australia, Japan, and the United States.
However, there are issues that India has been soft-footed and silent on – particularly, the ongoing Rohingya crisis in Myanmar. As the noted journalist Suhasini Haidar puts it:
As the subcontinent’s biggest nation, neighbour to both Bangladesh and Myanmar, as well as the country most likely to be affected if the numbers of Rohingya refugees continue to grow, India, in fact, should be showing the most initiative in this crisis. Instead, through a series of blunders that began with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s own visit to Myanmar, India has allowed its voice to be muffled. Even as hundreds of thousands were fleeing violence at home, Mr. Modi refused to refer to the Rohingya in his press statements in Naypyidaw in early September. Nor did India refer to anything other than the terror strike by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army while discussing the violence in Rakhine. It wasn’t until two days later, and after some prodding from Ms. Hasina, that the Indian foreign office even issued a statement of concern over the refugee crisis that had reached alarming proportions, something the U.S. has now called a clear case of “ethnic cleansing.
Not acknowledging the humanitarian crisis that continues to uproot hundreds of thousands of people does not stand in line with the ethos that India so passionately espouses – that of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, meaning, the world is one family.
As India establishes its presence militarily, economically and strategically, it is providing an alternative that counterbalances regional security threats posed by China. However, for India to truly claim its place in the world, and to make a shift from a ‘Look East policy’ to an ‘Act East policy,’ it needs to exert its influence in the face of stark humanitarian crisis by actions that deliver peace and stability to the region.
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