Look East realism

Look East realism

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is on a visit to East Asia. He has completed the Japan leg of his tour. He is to meet Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in Hanoi later this week. In-between, he has been to Malaysia. All this is part of the “look East" orientation that India is trying to impart to its international outlook.

At the moment, the impetus for deepening links with South-East Asia and Japan comes from efforts to counter China, a country now perceived as a threat by almost all others in the arc that spans from India all the way to Japan. This is a weak foundation for furthering our ties with these countries.

For deeper and lasting ties, either of the following conditions is needed: strong trading relationships; and/or a convergence in outlook or worldview. At the moment, neither exists. The ties with different countries are at different stages of political and economic levels and all are far from being satisfactory.

First, take a look at trade. Today, India’s trade with the six largest Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) economies, namely Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, Vietnam and Singapore, is less than what India trades with China. In 2009-10, India’s trade with China (exports plus imports) stood at $42.44 billion. This was roughly 9.1% of our total trade. To be sure, this is not an appropriate comparison, for Singapore is an outlier in this set. In Singapore’s case, the commercial ties due to its being a financial centre have a different dimension. In South-East Asia proper, much more needs to be done on the trading front before political ties acquire a stronger foundation.

Japan presents a different picture. While economic ties with that country are stronger, it is the political dimension of our relations that needs a boost. That is not happening. The Indo-Japanese nuclear cooperation deal remains stuck due to Tokyo’s domestic political entanglements. A comment in The Asahi Shimbun on Wednesday made this clear: It is hard for the Japanese to side-step India’s possession of nuclear weapons and its absence from the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. All this while Japan faces a “China threat" of an equal, if not bigger, dimension.

Another factor that is being missed in the diplomatic circus is China’s behaviour. It defies realism that Beijing will not respond to the threat posed by its neighbours trying to forge a balancing coalition against it. Given the rather weak political foundations of India’s efforts against China in South-East Asia, that possibility should be taken as a given.

India’s look East efforts: successful or not? Tell us at views@livemint.com