Looking East with a squint

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first_imgAt quite regular intervals, Indian foreign policymakers get a little guilty about how we treat our neighbours in the East and brush up their forgotten policies toward East and Southeast Asia. Three decades ago, P V Narasimha Rao first came up with a ‘Look East’ Policy. The policy envisioned that we pay greater attention to our neighbours in the East and Southeast. With Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, etc., setting a scorching pace of economic growth in previous decades, India seemed to realise that there are countries to our east which needed attention. The ‘Look East’ policy was intended to build strong relations with the Tigers in our East. Also Read – A staunch allyThe prime ministers who followed Narasimha Rao would occasionally remember that India had a ‘Look East’ policy and dust it up and re-parrot it intermittently. Like our old Ambassador cars, which Hindustan Motors year upon year would produce the same model of a car but in a decade or two change the shape of the car’s grill or of its side view mirrors or of the door handle and call the revised version Mark II or Mark III or IV, every few years India, too, would come up with a Look East Policy Mark II or III or IV. The policy —if ever there was anything substantive in the policy —would not change fundamentally but the new incumbent prime minister or his foreign minister would tinker a little bit here or there and present the policy to the country as something new and very different from the past. Also Read – Cuban pathosClearly, everyone, and especially our Asian neighbours to the East and Southeast knew that these new policies were merely old wine in new bottles, or more correctly no wine in new bottles. Look East policy were empty words with little substance. Even the term ‘Look East’ has a condescending ring about it. It is as though India has finally deigned to turn its head a little and begin looking at our neighbours to the East. But those neighbours always knew that India was, is, and always will be obsessed with the West. Our minds, and especially the minds of our policymakers in the South Block have always been fixated on the West. A young Indian Foreign Service Officer would feel delighted to be posted to Washington DC or New York or London or Paris or Brussels or Berlin, or even to Tel Aviv or Beirut, but would hate it if the posting was to Phnom Penh or Yangoon or Jakarta or even if it was Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur. We always look to the West for approbation and for pat on the back. A good word from even a junior official in the White House or an insignificant someone in Washington DC would send us into convulsions of joy. That passing mention would figure in the front pages of our papers and we would go chest-thumping. South Block would be delighted. Similar praise from UK, Germany, France or any of the smaller countries of Europe would also become occasions to celebrate. Our diplomatic initiatives, our trade policy or travel policy, our VIP visits, et al are all oriented (pun intended) towards the occident. India’s un-articulated but omnipresent Look West policy is not restricted to just the US and Europe. It includes countries in West Asia and the Gulf in a big way. With India being a major importer of oil how could it be otherwise? The countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council have always had a special status for India and our policymakers. So, the rare talk of a Look East policy continues to be only an occasional balm to soothe our Asian consciousness when on those few occasions the reality that we are a South Asian nation and therefore, the need to be close to East and South East Asia hits us. But the historic links that we have with our neighbours in the East cannot be forgotten easily. For many centuries, countries of Southeast Asia were Hindu Kingdoms with a highly Sanskritised culture. Even though Indonesia is a Muslim country today, its Indian and Hindu roots run deep. From the names of its people to its monuments, culture and traditions, India is always present in Islamic Indonesia. And not to forget Bali, a small island in Indonesia, has an overwhelmingly Hindu population. Its Hindu temples, festivals, culture and history are well known. India’s links with Thailand is palpable. Their kings are called Rama I, Rama II and so on. Many of the words of the Thai language have Sanskrit origins. The Thais would even claim that the real Ayodhya where Lord Ram was born is Ayutthaya, a town not far from the Thai capital Bangkok! (Ha! Only if it were, the Ram Janmabhoomi controversy would become irrelevant). Cambodia lying just beyond Thailand was the Kamboja-Desa of our Puranas. It is a very Buddhist country now but 1000 years ago, it was a Hindu Kingdom. It was only when the then King Jayavarman VII converted to Buddhism in the 11th Century that it became Buddhist. The largest Hindu Temple in the world, the Angkor Wat is in Cambodia. The Cambodian language Khmer is highly Sanskrit in its origins and still contains many words taken from the original Sanskrit. For example, a man is lok in Khmer, a woman is srey, a road is veethi, a school is vishyalay, an office is karyalay, etc. Even the word Angkor of Angkor Wat is a variation of nagor or nagar meaning a town or a city. Myanmar is very Indian in its language and culture and its dres. Even on formal occasions, men in Myanmar wear a coloured lungi, much as a white mundu or veshti would be worn in Kerala and Tamil Nadu. In recent times, India has had a very early diplomatic lead in many of these countries, which, unfortunately, we have now frittered away. India was one of the first countries to recognise Cambodia when it was liberated from the hated Khmer Rouge. We were one of the first to re-establish our embassy there at a time when China and the US, and most of Europe, were supporting the genocidal Khmer Rouge that had been overthrown. Similarly, we had extremely friendly relations with Vietnam starting from the time of Ho Chi Minh. And most of these countries love India and its citizens. I spent seven years in Cambodia on a UN posting and every time the Emigration Officers, or for that matter anyone, realised that I was an Indian, a smile would brighten their lips. The Emigration Officers’ hard face would soften like a baby’s, and they would seal their entry stamp on my blue UN passport without much ado. But today, our soft influence and early diplomatic inroads into these countries have been frittered away. And China has taken over and filled the vacuum. The Chinese presence in Cambodia, for example, is clearly visible everywhere today, with roads and bridges and huge development projects taken up by the Chinese in Phnom Penh, and elsewhere. On the other hand, India is visibly absent in Cambodia these days, with even the significant work the Archaeological Survey of India did to restore the Ta Prohm temple near Angkor Wat being just a drop in the mighty ocean of Chinese presence. These historic links and the more recent diplomatic advances we have had are very useful as soft power in any policy we now develop towards East and Southeast Asia. When Modi came to power in 2014 he promised not only to Look East but Act East. But in the five years since the Act East policy was announced, the focus of South Block on East and Southeast Asia has only been dwindling. There is very little action India has taken in respect of our relations with these countries. On the other hand, religious intolerance that has been on display in the country in the years after Modi took over could well be fuelling negative policy reactions in at least some of the many Muslim and Buddhist countries in the region. Modi’s second term has just begun, and it may be too early to say anything substantial about his foreign policy initiatives in the next five years. But in the initial few weeks of the second term itself, the Act East policy of his first term seems to have been replaced by a Look South, Fly South policy. Not that his visits to Male and Sri Lanka were not useful. But with Jaishankar as External Affairs Minister, our policy towards our Eastern neighbours could continue to hibernate. While he has been Ambassador to China and High Commissioner in Singapore, and while his wife is Japanese, it is not Japan, China nor Singapore that India needs to target in its Look East or Act East policies. It is the smaller nations of the region that should be the target of India’s policy. Jaishankar’s diplomatic interest in them is not quite clear. With China emerging – in the last couple of decades – as a real economic and military threat to India as well as for Southeast Asian nations, India must put in place a robust policy towards the East. Long ago when I was in school, I heard my friends insensitively describe a person with a squint with the words, ‘London Looking, Tokyo Turning’, meaning that even though the person is turning to the East he is actually looking to the West. That about sums up India’s Look East and Act East policies. In Modi’s second term our policy to the East can perhaps best be summed with the words ‘Lanka Looking, Thailand Turning’. We may be turning our head towards the East but our look and attention are being fixed on South Asia, with the West, of course, continuing to be the perennial priority. That would need to change. It is not enough to look at the East with a squint. We need to be proactively present in these countries. (The author is a former Indian and UN Civil Servant and has worked extensively in South East Asia. The views expressed are strictly personal)last_img

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