Eastward ho!

India's look east policy can promote greater peace, stability and prosperity in the regionSatyajit Mohanty DelhiIndia scored major diplomatic victories in the December 2005 India-ASEAN and East Asian summit meetings when India's look east policy road map and vision for a pan-Asian Free Trade Area was heard and appreciated by leaders and scholars of the continent. However, the euphoria surrounding India's diplomatic gains should from now on be concretised with certain specific initiatives so that India's engagement with East Asia can move to higher levels. The look east policy, launched in 1991, has entered the second decade and the aim should be to pinpoint specific gains by, say, 2010. India's engagement with East Asian countries needs to take place at four different levels and on four major fronts. India needs to deal with China at one level, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam (CLMV) at another, South Korea and Japan at the third level and the original ASEAN-5 countries—Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Philippines and Singapore—at the final level. Such engagement has to take place at four different fronts—political, economic, strategic and cultural. Such levels of engagement with specific emphasis on certain sectors when interacting with a certain country or a group of countries would fan out India's East Asian policy in four intercepting circles covering the entire geographical sweep of the region. At the most proximate level India needs to continue its policy of constructively engaging China politically and economically at both the bilateral and the multilateral fora without sending signals of a balance of power game being played in East Asia. Both countries have decided to resolve all outstanding boundary disputes and boost bilateral trade to US$20 billion by 2008— a target not unrealistic given the high growth of both these economies. While some Asian countries want to rope in India to act as a counter to the growing Chinese influence, Manmohan Singh has tried to dispel notions of India and China as strategic competitors. Similar, positive vibes from Beijing that it is not trying to establish its hegemony over East Asia augur well for the regionalism process in Asia. The European experience shows that optimum power stratification between France and Germany coupled with economic imperatives to cooperate fostered European regional integration. A pan-Asian FTA, as envisioned by Manmohan Singh, would have enough ‘trade creation effects’ to accommodate the growing trade and economic interests of both India and China. The time is ripe to focus on details in the bilateral relationships by pitching joint bids for energy security and having a common stand on specific WTO issues like market access. A good beginning on the energy front has been made this year with the visit of Mani Shanker Aiyer to China. India and China agreed to share information when bidding for oil and gas contracts in other countries and such cooperative moves would enhance energy security of two of the world's largest energy consumers without pushing up prices due to competitive bidding. China and India should lay down a road map for implementing a comprehensive goods and services agreement by say 2009, which could include greater border trade through the land route. Such a move would also help in linking the interior areas of China and India's northeastern region, thereby putting these relatively backward regions on a growth trajectory.  At another level India has to extend political and economic support to Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam (CLMV) in line with something contemplated in the Gujral doctrine for the country's South Asian neighbours. By extending multi-sectoral economic and technical assistance and helping in the capacity-building of these nations India will also be able to project its ‘soft power’ into Southeast Asia. India should render its expertise in the educational, technological, information technology and pharmaceutical sectors to promote the socio-economic development in the CLMV countries. Amongst the CLMV countries, Myanmar's socio-economic development is most important from India's strategic viewpoint as India shares a disturbed border with Myanmar.  The original ASEAN-5 countries visualise India not only as a nation with tremendous economic opportunities but also as a country which could provide stability both over land and sea and help in combating terrorists who move between Southeast and Central Asia. So on the security front, mechanisms aiming at joint Indo-ASEAN counter-terrorism and anti-narcotic operations as well as sharing of intelligence to combat sea piracy should be put in place at the earliest. On the economic front India has already put in place the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA) with Singapore and the Early Harvest Scheme with Thailand. Singapore has already emerged as India's third largest foreign direct investor last year and Indo-Thai trade has more than doubled from US$ 868 million in 2001-02 to reach US$ 1713 million in 2004-05. India's trade to Asia is growing at a much faster rate when compared to the growth in India's trade to other parts of the world. The Indo-ASEAN, BIMSTEC and Indo-Thailand FTAs will also be operational soon, thereby demonstrating the importance India is laying on regional trade and economic arrangements particularly with ASEAN countries in our foreign economic policy.With South Korea and Japan in particular, India needs to explore options of ‘defence diplomacy’ like joint naval exercises so that the same can stand in good stead against piracy and terrorist attacks on the vital Sea Lanes of Communication (SLOCs) such as the Malacca Straits. The naval capabilities of these countries are recognised in the region. Japan had deployed naval warships including Aegis anti-missile equipped destroyer into the Indian Ocean in support of the US-led global war on terrorism. Further, India, Japan and South Korea, with fairly long democratic traditions, can put in place a ‘democratic troika’ that can both act as a model for capacity-building as well as a pressure group for other non-democratic countries to follow democratic norms. India can act as a hub for South Korean and Japanese investments and be a part of the Japanese and South Korean Regional Production Networks (RPNs). Manmohan Singh has already indicated India's desire to attract investment from East Asian neighbours rather than look west. India is already exploring bilateral FTAs with these countries and should also promote tourism and the services sector in the east.With rise in East Asian regionalism and India's political and economic clout on a growth curve, it is in the mutual interest of both India and its East Asian neighbours to shed the historical baggage and ideological intonations and promote better relationships through concrete steps in the larger interests of Asian political and economic security. The author is in the ministry of finance. The views expressed are personal