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Like the proverbial one hand not knowing what the other is doing, India’s Look East policy is in danger of becoming incoherent. Two events describe the state of affairs. External affairs minister Sushma Swaraj paid a visit to Vietnam this week, an event that hardly attracted the attention it merited. But days after that visit, commerce minister Nirmala Sitharaman skipped a planned visit to Myanmar to sign an important bilateral agreement with Asean countries. Her reason: she is needed at home for the launch of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Jan Dhan Yojna.

The importance of the Look East idea, in vogue since the time P.V. Narasimha Rao was prime minister, cannot be overstressed. Japan is not only one of the biggest investors in the Indian economy but also wants close politico-military relations with New Delhi. Vietnam, the only country in Asia to have defeated China in open battle, is more than willing to face Beijing’s wrath in cultivating deeper defence ties with India. In contrast, India’s response has not been vigorous. At each step in recent months, India has tried to further relations with these countries while trying not to antagonize China. In earlier times this was called running with the hare and hunting with the hound. It won’t work.

Swaraj’s visit focused on cooperation between the two countries in oil and defence, areas that are indirectly a bone of contention for India’s powerful neighbour China.

Just before the foreign minister’s visit, Hanoi renewed India’s lease for two oil fields in the South China Sea for another year. This is in addition to the five that were offered to ONGC Videsh Ltd last year. China does not believe that Vietnam has any claim to these waters or the oil blocks and is therefore strongly opposed to such deals. The country has unfailingly been belligerent in staking its claim to islands in the South China Sea, a move Vietnam contests. In May, China installed a $1 billion mobile oil rig in Vietnamese waters. This lead to a bitter feud between the countries and ended with China withdrawing. Vietnam, like Taiwan, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Japan, has been at the receiving end of Chinese maritime aggression for years.

The way China deals with these countries is the same. Needle them individually, reject any discussion on these disputes in multilateral forums, reiterate that all issues will be handled bilaterally and prevent the build-up of any coalition of these countries against it.

This is where India has a choice to make: let Chinese aggression continue, even though it faces similar threats from the country in the northeast, or proactively pursue a multilateral defence coalition against the Chinese.

Since Independence, India’s foreign policy establishment has been populated with China experts who have espoused subservience against any threat from the country. The push has always been to not antagonize the Chinese. Admittedly, China is not a country to provoke heedlessly. That said, India can’t take a vow of subservience and not look at protecting its interests. As the other countries involved in disputes with China, India too is no match for it individually. But nothing stops it from reaching out to other countries, particularly, Japan and Vietnam and pursuing a coalition which can help them in the face of aggression from a common threat.

In this context, Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Japan in the coming days is crucial. Modi should leverage the goodwill that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has traditionally had for India and push for stronger defence and strategic ties.

Unfortunately, some mistakes with respect to Japan have already been committed. Modi should have made visiting Japan his priority. But the visit has been postponed to three months after he took office. Meanwhile, the Chinese foreign minister has already visited India and Modi has had a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the BRICS summit in July. Symbolic gestures are crucial in international affairs and India has erred in giving primacy to China over Japan. Friendship with China is an illusion. Even as the Chinese leadership professes its commitment to peace and stability in relations with India, there has been no cessation to border incursions and its forceful push to alter the status quo with respect to Arunachal Pradesh. While the Indian establishment pacifies itself by terming these events as routine, China is getting more emboldened by the day.

This is all the more reason that Modi should use his Japan visit to do damage control and pledge his commitment to a strong defence alliance with the Japanese.

Since 2007, Prime Minster Abe has been pushing for a “broader Asia" coalition to counter China. That it wants India on board for this project is known. What has been missing is Indian will to take a decision and farsightedness to secure its long-term interests. If India is determined to Act East, this is the chance to make it happen.

Should India choose between China and Japan? Tell us at views@livemint.com

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