India Has a 'Look East Policy' Too

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Credit: Wikimedia CommonsBy Shastri Ramachandaran *
IDN-InDepth NewsViewpoint

NEW DELHI (IDN) - The term 'BCIM' is not as evocative as SAARC, BRICS, IBSA or even CHOGM. There are many reasons why the abbreviation should figure much more in the discourse on diplomacy and foreign policy. BCIM is short for Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Forum for Regional Cooperation.

SAARC stands for South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation; BRICS for Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa; IBSA for India-Brazil-South Africa; and CHOGM for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting.

In excessive preoccupation with the West – meaning the US – and perception of the West as a necessary ally for adding weight to balance New Delhi's relationships with Pakistan and China, Indians often tend to overlook that India also has a Look East policy (LEP), which is now entering its third decade.

The essence of LEP, born of the economic reforms and restructuring launched in 1991, is that India's economic interests and future would be best served by greater integration with Asia in its wider sense – not only South Asia (our immediate neighbourhood), but also South and Southeast Asia.

Sub-regional efforts, like the BCIM forum, are pivotal in making the Look East Policy work for India’s East and Northeastern regions. The biggest benefit of the LEP, as foreign secretary Ranjan Mathai said at the 10th meeting of the BCIM forum in Kolkata in February 2012, is India's robust re-engagement with its eastern neighbourhood and emergence as "a significant player in the strategic dynamics" of the region.

Given this context, the 10th BCIM session is a significant landmark of regional cooperation that could be defining of relations with Bangladesh, China and Myanmar in striving for an 'Asian century.'

India's relationship with all three countries is at a critical juncture. There is a paradigm shift in India-Bangladesh ties, which has had its euphoric highs and cheerless lows during the four decades since the country's birth.

The upbeat nature of the relationship was borne out by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's visit to Bangladesh in 2011 — the first in 12 years; which was preceded by the Bangladesh premier Sheikh Hasina's visit to India in 2010. Equally heartening as official and diplomatic interactions is the marked warmth in the personal relations between political leaders of the two countries.

China is a competitor and a challenge. It could be an adversary, too. However, relations with India's biggest neighbour cannot be managed by confrontation and suspicion alone. As the advanced industrial economies of the West struggle to recover from the global crisis, China and India have emerged as the drivers of global economic recovery. The two countries have more economic interests in common than political differences that separate them.

In 2011, India-China trade set a new record of $74 billion and it may well exceed the $100 billion target set for 2015. Admittedly, India's trade deficit with China is worrying, but that is no cause for tension or conflict in a broad-based and multifaceted relationship that is maturing steadily.

Myanmar, the third neighbour in BCIM, is the world's newest hot spot. With the military easing its political grip, democratic impulses gaining ground and the economy opening up, it has become the year's favourite destination for diplomatic visitors as well as tourists. With the stepping up of India-Myanmar bilateral cooperation and increased number of high-level visits, the country is a valued partner, and not only because it is being wooed by many in the West.

The potential of enhanced relationships with these three neighbouring countries, collectively reflected in the BCIM forum, is a reminder that it needs to now go beyond annual meetings. The BCIM Forum, as Eric Gonsalves, former secretary, external affairs ministry, and leader of the Indian delegation to the 10th meeting at Kolkata, emphasised "needs to keep itself active on a full-time basis and plan more inter-session activities."

In an exclusive communication to this writer, Gonsalves said the Look East policy has the ingredients to deal with a whole lot of our problems. "This requires India to: one, mesh with our neighbours to the East in the most advantageous way; two, address with care and attention — when the opportunity is knocking — relations with our other south Asian neighbours; three, build up the Northeast as a much-needed economic bulwark for buttressing the security posture which, at present, relies on scorched earth policies on the border; four, work on the connectivity that underlies all these processes."

Gonsalves said Myanmar presents a unique opportunity: it can be opened up as India's gateway to the East and Southeast Asia, especially with policy changes there giving it unprecedented access to funds and technology. The benefits flowing home from this could help solve the alienation and consequent militancy problems in the Northeast, he felt.

None of this will be easy. There are many problems. The promise held out by the BCIM forum is that there can be new thinking and beginnings to resolve some of the old problems.

* Shastri Ramachandaran is an independent commentator on political and foreign affairs. He had attended the Ninth session of the BCIM Forum in Kunming (China) in January 2011. This article was first published in DNA on March 26, 2012. [IDN-InDepthNews – April 29, 2012]

2012 IDN-InDepthNews | Analysis That Matters

Picture: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India | Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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