India’s “look East” policy is finally beginning to yield rich dividends. By all accounts, the visit of the prime minister, Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee to Bali for the second summit between India and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations has been a success. New Delhi’s latest phase of engagement with countries of southeast Asia began about a decade ago, during the tenure of the former prime minister, Mr P.V. Narasimha Rao, but the rich promise of improved ties did not translate into reality. This time round, however, there have been tangible gains. Three accords have been signed, which should greatly contribute to a more productive Indian relationship with the region.
By far the most important agreement is on the framework for a free trade area by 2012. While the final goal of a hurdle-free trade regime is sought to be achieved after a decade, the framework has an “early harvest programme” that will start from November next year. What is particularly commendable is the clear timeline, the interim steps and the realistic goals that have been agreed to by India and the ASEAN group of countries. India has also shown some economic magnanimity and not demanded reciprocity at every level. For instance, while New Delhi will remove tariffs on 105 items on a common list within three years, as will Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia, Brunei, Malaysia and Philippines, weaker economies, including Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam, have been given six years. The agreed framework is certain to give greater depth and content to the relationship. Indeed, the text was negotiated over just ten months while a similar arrangement that ASEAN countries have with China took ten years to bear fruition.
Mr Vajpayee also signalled that an “open skies” accord was being reached with the ASEAN countries. As a first step, India has offered airlines from ASEAN countries free daily services without any prior bilateral agreement. Predictably, the campaign against terrorism is the second plank of India’s closer relationship with the region. A joint declaration on terrorism, which was signed during the prime minister’s visit, assumes special significance given that Bali witnessed a major terrorist attack in October last year. The joint declaration proposed greater cooperation in legal matters, information exchange as well as closer collaboration in enforcement of anti-terrorist measures. The free trade agreement and the declaration on terrorism are embedded in the ASEAN treaty of amity and cooperation that India acceded to during the prime minister’s visit. There is no doubt that if the momentum generated by Mr Vajpayee’s visit is sustained, a new dynamism could be unleashed in the Asia-Pacific region. It is equally significant that Beijing used the opportunity of a meeting between Mr Vajpayee and the Chinese premier, Mr Wen Jiabao, at Bali, to remove Sikkim as an independent country from the official website of the Chinese foreign ministry. Clearly, continuing to look East seems the obvious course for Indian foreign policy in the days to come.