It remains to be seen if New Delhi will make the most of the opportunity presented by the first summit between India and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Phnom Penh. The Indian prime minister, Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee, has put forward a vision of India and ASEAN wedded together, at the summit, and articulated a proposal for a free trade area. However, one has to wait and see if this goal actually translates into reality. The history of contemporary India-ASEAN relations reveals a pattern of missed opportunities. Consequently, India’s relations with its southeast Asian neighbours, in the recent past, have been high on slogans and low on substance. India’s association with southeast Asia goes back in history, but the Cold War played a critical role in ensuring that the two drifted apart — with the two sides being on opposite sides of the East-West divide — as did the different economic models that were adopted. It was only after the collapse of the Soviet Union that India officially launched its “Look East Policy” in 1991 during Mr P.V. Narasimha Rao’s prime ministership. And while there was then a new realpolitik in evidence in India’s foreign policy, and engagement with ASEAN was clearly part of a recognition of the strategic and economic importance of the region to the country’s national interests, there was little sustained commitment to promoting tangible cooperation. Many of the ASEAN countries felt particularly let down by India’s wavering commitment to economic liberalization. The manner in which the proposed joint venture between Singapore Airlines and Tata, for instance, was treated by New Delhi, led to considerable disillusionment.
The summit in Phnom Penh provides a new opportunity for India to carve a tangible niche for itself in the ASEAN world. There are several reasons that demand a new “Look East” thrust to India’s foreign policy. The integrative forces of globalization make it essential for India to extend its economic vision beyond the confines of its traditional policy. ASEAN is clearly an area which must become the focus of Indian policymakers. Moreover, the lack of visible economic integration within south Asia, makes it necessary to look beyond the south Asian region. A closer relationship with southeast Asia is vital also if India is seeking to set limits on China’s influence in the region and even, more ambitiously, balance its expanding economic and political power.
India’s engagement with the ASEAN countries must be rooted in the recognition that if India wants to be taken seriously as a power of consequence it must widen the canvas of its foreign policy. The willingness of the United States of America and other powers to allow India to take greater responsibility for the management of the international system would depend, to a large extent, on the manner in which India itself assumes greater responsibility in strategically important regions, and southeast Asia is undeniably one such region. India’s positive engagement with the ASEAN countries thus has global implications.