THE “LOOK EAST” THRUST of India’s foreign policy, articulated by then prime minister PV Narasimha Rao in Singapore in the early 1990s, has over the years led to an improvement in relations with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries—Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. Trade with the region has skyrocketed; investment from ASEAN countries is flowing into India; and much else is happening in areas of scientific, strategic and cultural cooperation. India has played a key role in regional bodies, such as ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), that emerged in post-Cold War Southeast Asia.
One of the declared objectives of the Look East policy was to link India’s northeast region to its Southeast Asian neighbours. Many argued that the government should develop this connection in order to entice Indian industry into the region and use it as a manufacturing hub. From there, industry would have access to markets in southwest China and, through Burma, to Southeast Asia. In turn, the economically backward region would prosper from greater economic and logistical ties.
Unfortunately, India has not been very successful in using the troubled Northeast to access the tiger economies of Southeast Asia. Twenty years after the formal announcement of India’s Look East policy, Indian business is looking east, but across the seas. Almost its entire trade with Southeast and East Asian countries is happening through the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean.