India and Southeast Asia: Revisited

By Yahya, Faizal | Contemporary Southeast Asia, April 2003 | Go to article overview

India and Southeast Asia: Revisited


Yahya, Faizal, Contemporary Southeast Asia


Introduction: Post-Cold War Globalization

The end of the Cold War, the globalization of national economies, and the Asian financial crisis were some of the key factors that have established an ecologically conducive environment for India to enhance its linkages with the Southeast Asian region. The demise of the Soviet Union, India's main trading partner, and India's economic crisis of 1991 and subsequent economic reforms created a momentum for India to strengthen its trading links with Southeast Asia. Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee said that "the Cold War moulds have been broken and this has enabled us to strengthen our links without ideological barrier". (1) India's engagement with Southeast Asia has spanned two millennia, based on trade, migration, language, culture, and religion.2 India has also been observing with concern that China's influence in Southeast Asia has grown. China's growing role in Southeast Asia contrasts with India's inability to strengthen its economic relations with the countries of South Asia despite the creation o f the South Asia Association for Regional Co-operation (SAARC). (3) China's strategic links with Pakistan also irks India because of China's indirect interference in South Asia.

This article will differ from previous works on India and ASEAN by focusing on India's relations with the later entrants of the regional grouping, namely, Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam (CMLV). These newer ASEAN states are strategically very important to India because of their proximity not only to India but also to the other Asian giant, China. In this context, the article will also examine India's economic ties with Thailand, which has closer bilateral interests to the CMLV states than the other ASEAN member states. These five ASEAN members are also noted as riparian states of the Mekong and are involved in the framework of the Mekong-Ganga Co-operation (MGC). The MGC ministers in the Vientiane Declaration had identified several areas for co-operation; they include culture, education, tourism, transport, and communications. (4)

India's focus on Thailand and the CMLV states highlights the fact that geographical proximity has a large influence in India's "Look East" policy because the Southeast Asian states, in particular those along the Mekong River, are also strategically important to China. When Myanmar became a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 1997, India came to share a 1,500-kilometre contiguous border with ASEAN. In this context, India's engagement with the ASEAN states has assumed a different strategic perspective. At the onset of India's 1991 economic reforms, engagement with ASEAN was to accelerate the expansion and modernization of Indian infrastructure in the form of communications, roads, ports, and power. (5) This meant attracting foreign investments and collaboration with the more advanced ASEAN countries such as Malaysia and Singapore. Though still very important, the engagement policy of India with the ASEAN states has assumed an added strategic dimension in the form of the riparian stat es along the Mekong River.

From a regional perspective, the "Look East" policy also demonstrated that India has little faith in the development of its own South Asian Association of Regional Co-operation. According to Indian External Affairs Minister Yashwant Sinha, "the development of ASEAN, during the last three decades, is the only successful experiment in regionalism". (6) India believes that enhancing the level of its economic partnership with ASEAN is an important part of its strategy to increase its share in world trade which stands at a mere 0.4 per cent at the end of 2001. (7) The ASEAN region encompasses about 500 million people, with a combined total of US$737 billion in income and US$720 billion in external trade. India and the ASEAN states are located in a geographically contiguous market that has 1.5 billion people with 300 million middle-class consumers in India alone.

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