Before the Look East Policy (LEP) was initiated almost two decades ago, India faced a tough policy crossroads: to the west lay India’s bitter rival, Pakistan, as well as the flailing former ally, the Soviet Union. To the east was a semi-hostile ASEAN community, and of course the regional hegemon, China.
While the east certainly posed challenges for India, there were also many opportunities in this direction. Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia were growing markets ripe for further expansion; the Asia Pacific was also a US stronghold, and India was beginning to understand the benefits of strengthening ties with the emergent global power.
Contrast this with a possible ‘Look West Policy’ and the outlook is quite dim. Pakistan presented, as always, an insurmountable challenge strategically, and the situation in Afghanistan was similarly challenging. Further west lay Iran and the rest of the Middle East as well as Russia and the Caucasus-all areas of intense conflict, little opportunity and overall a political quagmire. It is little wonder India choose to ‘Look East’ instead.
Initially India’s LEP was directed at South East Asian (SEA) nations like Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia and was specifically targeting the ASEAN organization as a means of thawing relationships that had had previously frosty undertones (Cold War era). In general the LEP has been quite successful in dealing with ASEAN; although full membership has not been granted (and is unlikely to be) in 1995 India was made a full dialogue partner in ASEAN and in 1996 was made a member of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF).
India had more success with the East Asia Summit, as it had played its cards well enough to be a founding member of the EAS in 2005. Although India, as an emerging economic power in the region and an Asian country, had good reason to be included in the EAS for these reasons alone, many ASEAN members only acceded to India’s inclusion in order to provide a possible counterweight to China.
The LEP had previously not focused as much attention on China as it had to the core ASEAN countries. The inclusion in the EAS very clearly augmented the hegemonic force of China (and the ASEAN nations concern about this) and the hopes that India, as a rising force in the region, could counter Chinese domination.
India has a very tight rope to walk with relations with China. On the one hand Indian Prime Manmohan Singh continually asserts that India is not afraid of competition. On the other hand January 2010 saw the implementation of the ASEAN-China FTA- which is the third largest regional trade agreement in the world-a market that India can’t afford to be isolated from; maintaining good relations with China is thus imperative.
This has proven rather difficult for India, not for want of friendly overtures, but for their somewhat indifferent reception. China, it is obvious, does not view India as such a big strategic threat, and in many cases, there are still unresolved issues between the two countries. Close ties between China and Pakistan, border disputes with China as well as India’s support for exiled Tibetan leader The Dalai Lama remain a thorn in the side of Sino-Indian relations.
While India was deciding to look East, Pakistan had already chosen to look west. That being said Pakistan sought inclusion into ARF and ASEAN (and continues to, to this day) and despite the efforts of some of Pakistan’s friends in the region, India’s established role in the organizations has kept Pakistani participation and integration minimal. The creation of Bangladesh in 1971, former East Pakistan, was perhaps the first blow to Pakistan’s LEP.
The Indo-Pak enmity has always leaned towards a ‘your side’ my side’ scenario when it comes to international relationships-only overarching powers like the US and China seem to be able to play both sides, with an albeit disgruntled Pakistan and India assenting simply because of power asymmetries. The Indian LEP therefore creates considerable problems for Pakistan as it too now seeks new opportunities to the east.
Pakistan’s potential in the east is limited by the near two decades of PR done by India in the region. However, Malaysia and Indonesia are two Muslim countries with which Pakistan has historically shared good relations. Both Malaysia and Indonesia have had troubled relations with China in the past and the good Pakistan-China ties may have gotten in the way of Pakistan’s Look East Policy in the past. Since the end of Cold War the relations of both Malaysia and Indonesia with China have transformed and these countries can play a significant role in eliminating the hurdles created by India for Pakistan in the pacific realm.
Tell Us What You Think