Aug 3, 2012 | 07:55 GMT

4 mins read

India's Look East Policy Comes of Age

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There has been a flurry of activity recently suggesting that India is finally getting serious about reinvigorating its stalled "Look East" policy, a doctrine initiated in 1991 that emphasizes the cultivation of influence throughout Asia. This week, New Delhi commissioned its newest naval base, INS Baaz, located in the southern part of India's Andaman Islands territory, which is closer to the Indonesian island of Sumatra than to the Indian mainland. New Delhi has also been increasingly engaged in the dispute over the South China Sea between China and Vietnam. On Thursday, India offered to provide Myanmar's armed forces with training to combat Indian insurgent groups operating from Myanmar's side of the two countries' border.

Economic changes dominated India throughout the 1990s, but the country has also shifted its foreign policy paradigm — from nonalignment and a nearly exclusive focus on subcontinental issues to the outwardly oriented view outlined by Look East. Though the purpose of Look East was to transform India into an internationally recognized economic and military power, the country's economy — which has concentrated primarily on the export of electronic services — and looming threats posed by perennially insecure Pakistan kept the policy from becoming a reality. New Delhi has attempted to become more involved in Southeast Asian activities, but India has remained in a state of relative introversion due to constraints enforced by the Himalayas, Pakistani hostilities, a hermit-like Myanmar and the vastness of the subcontinent's surrounding oceans. 

All of this has started to change, however, due to the growing influence of neighbor and potential rival China. As Beijing's interests have expanded from the coasts of East Africa to South America and beyond, India has gradually expanded the scope of its armed forces. Likewise, given China's need to protect its long supply lines, which extend from Africa and the Middle East back to the Chinese mainland, from the United States' powerful maritime influence, Beijing has steadily enhanced its presence in the Indian Ocean. Whether anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden, support for Pakistan, flirtations with the Maldives and an increasing presence in the Andaman Sea, China's so-called String of Pearls has increasingly looked to Indian foreign policymakers like a noose around India's neck. Moreover, Myanmar, which for decades effectively cut off India from its traditional sphere of influence in Southeast Asia, has started to become more extroverted. In the process, Myanmar has been courting support from every corner, especially India.

As an example of India's seriousness about implementing Look East, New Delhi has gotten involved in the South China Sea dispute to deter potential threats posed by China. By engaging China far from Indian shores while, incidentally, potentially acquiring some access to oil, India has increased its leverage with China. India has also started to increase its presence in the strategic territory around the Andaman Islands. The newly commissioned Baaz naval station will allow India to influence traffic in the Strait of Malacca and check China's advances into an ocean that India considers its own. Moreover, with Naypyidaw looking to become less dependent on China, Myanmar has allowed itself to become a battleground for influence between Beijing and New Delhi. Considering India's offer to provide military training to Myanmar's armed forces, Look East finally appears to be coming of age.

India's recent moves with Vietnam and Myanmar reflect continuing realignment attempts by regional powers. China's rapid economic growth has compelled it to expand its naval activity in the Indian Ocean. Historically constrained by internal issues and concerns to its northwest, India now perceives both a growing maritime threat from China (whether real or exaggerated) and a possible thaw in relations with Pakistan (as seen in the slow trend toward greater economic interaction and a shift in U.S. policies that no longer treat India and Pakistan in a zero-sum manner). This environment is allowing India to take action on its long-standing Look East policy and is pushing the country to secure its interests.

Oil exploration near Vietnam and military training in Myanmar are just small steps, however, and India has yet to fully break free from its internal constraints. The country's recent massive power outages highlight the challenges New Delhi still faces at home, from significant infrastructure problems to intrastate competition to social impacts stemming from the global economic slowdown. This is not the first time India has sought to expand its influence to the east, and it is unlikely to be the last.

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