Academic journal article IUP Journal of International Relations

India's Foreign Policy toward Southeast Asia: Issues before and after the Cold War

Academic journal article IUP Journal of International Relations

India's Foreign Policy toward Southeast Asia: Issues before and after the Cold War

Article excerpt

India and Southeast Asia have shared historical and civilizational relations since millennia. This multifaceted cordiality of relations remained intact between these two regions till the beginning of the Cold War era. The Indian leadership not only had a great sympathetic attitude but also supported the national movement of the Southeast Asian countries during the anti-colonial period. However, the crescendo of cordiality witnessed for a very brief period during the Asian Relations Conference (1947) and Bandung Conference (1954), lost its heyday with the beginning of the Cold War. These two regions drifted from each other due to many factors, and Southeast Asia no longer figured in India's foreign policy priorities. However, after the end of the Cold War, drastic changes took place in the internal and external milieu which compelled India to redesign its foreign policy vis-à-vis the region. After the end of the Cold War, Southeast Asia regained its importance in India's foreign policy deliberations due to India's Look East Policy which was launched in 1991 by the then Narasimha Rao government. The main purpose of this paper is to explore the place of Southeast Asia in Indian foreign policy agenda.

A country's foreign policy is shaped by its geopolitical self-perceptions, its image of the world and various domestic compulsions, strengths and weaknesses. Occupying a dominant position at the head of the Indian Ocean, jutting out into the sea for about 3,000 km, India is embedded and terrestrially moored to the surrounding ocean and its littoral. With a large sea frontage running to 7,51 6 km,1 India's east and west coast have historically facilitated cultural and commercial interaction with the Southeast Asia. The vastness of size, quantum of natural resources and strategic location have guided its leadership to formulate a foreign policy which is viable and suitable to the country's national interest.

The formulation of India's foreign policy can be traced back to 1 925, when Indian National Congress established a small foreign department to make overseas contacts and publicize its freedom struggle. From the late 1 920s onwards, Jawaharlal Nehru formulated the Congress' stance on international issues. Concerned with the need for Asian Unity, Nehru planned to hold an Asian Relation Conference. He wrote to Gandhi in January 1 946 explaining the event that "Almost every country of Asia from the west to east and south, including Arab countries, Tibet, Mongolia, and the countries of Southeast Asia, viz., Burma, Indonesia, Kampuchea, Malaya, the Philippines and Siam will be represented by leading men."2 At the inaugural speech of the conference on March 23, 1 947, Nehru declared:

We have no designs against anybody; ours is the great design of promoting peace and progress all over the world. Far too long have we, of Asia, been petitioners in Western courts and chancelleries. That story must now belong to the past. We propose to stand on our legs and to cooperate with all others who are prepared to cooperate with us. We do not intend to be the playthings of others.3

India's independence movement had been a stimulant to the anti-colonial struggle in Southeast Asia. Leaders such as Sukarno, Norodom Sihanouk, Aung San, and Ho Chi Minh admired Indian personalities like Mahatma Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore, and Jawaharlal Nehru. Many leaders from Southeast Asia had attended the sessions of the Indian National Congress and met Indian leaders during the freedom movement. It is then the Indian leaders had mooted the concept of Asianism and emphasized the spiritualism of Asia over materialistic West. They called upon a common Asian identity in opposition to the West.4 After India gained independence in 1947, it pursued a dynamic policy towards Southeast Asia.

To fully enunciate the tenets of non-alignment, Nehru chose Bandung (Indonesia) where the Second Asian Relations Conference was held from April 1 8 to 24, 1 955. …

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