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Issue No.: 571 | January 2015
 

“Look East” to “Act East” and “Link West”: New Direction and Dynamism in Indian Foreign Policy

B. Ramesh Babu
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"Purpose of foreign policy is not to provide an outlet for our sentiments. It is to shape real events in a real world.” – John F. Kennedy.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi went on yet another trip abroad in November, his longest foreign foray since assuming office. The way he is going, he will soon surpass Mohan Singh’s five year record in less than a year. This trip took him to Myanmar, Australia and Fiji. 

Modi’s visit to Myanmar in essence signifies the transition from "Look East” to the more energetic formulation called "Act East”. India’s earlier policy of principled support to human rights activists protesting against the military regime in Myanmar yielded place to a more pragmatic policy of establishing proper and good relations with the country’s Government under UPA rule. Such a shift was also over due in view of the growing influence of China in the country, which is vital for our security. Modi was in Myanmar to participate in the East Asia Summit and the ASEAN-India Summit that followed. He was welcomed ceremonially by the host, President Thein Sein. Together they took the bilateral relations forward on the economic front. One of the important agreements signed in Myanmar was to build a super highway connecting Bangladesh, the North Eastern states of India with Myanmar passing through Mandalay and going all the way to Yangon (Rangoon). He also met the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and described her as the "symbol of democracy”. Since the meeting was with the knowledge of the Myanmar Government, Modi was able to strike a new balance in India’s relationship with the country. In any case the military rulers and the opposition led by Suu Kyi have been on the path of reconciliation for some time. Modi also used the occasion to follow up on his one to one equation with President Obama. 

Continuity and Change

Usually continuity and change are the permanent features of foreign policies of all countries. Prime Minister Modi’s initiative to "Act East” and "Link West” was built on the ideas and actions of two of his illustrious predecessors: 1) Atal Behari Vajpayee, who described India and US as natural allies. 2) P. V. Narasimha Rao, who had the sagacity to realise that the Nehruvian legacy of socialism, anti-western bias, and non-alignment has run its course. He had the courage to opt for new pathways to meet the new challenges facing the country. Above all, PV had the rare skill and patience to build the needed consensus across the wide political spectrum in support of his well considered departures from the long established policies, i.e. "the holy cows” of national politics! To manage the dramatic shifts and nurture those along for five long years while heading a minority Congress Government indeed called for an Apara Chanakya at the helm!

PV was the architect behind the historic reforms of 1990s, which put the economy on the irreversible path of rapid growth along capitalist lines. His Finance Minister Manmohan Singh was ready to stick his neck out, which suited PV very well! PV was the one who initiated the policy shift of moving close to the US and the West. PV was the philosopher and moving spirit behind the ‘Look East’ policy of building political and economic relations with the ASEAN nations. He saw India’s economic future in the region and beyond. 

‘Modification’ of Foreign Policy

Transiting from "Look East” to "Act East” and "Link West” with dynamism can be seen as ‘modification’ of the nation’s foreign policy and relations. As is more than obvious by now, the overarching and pressing goals of Prime Minister Modi are twofold : Firstly, to put the country back on the track of rapid and sustained economic growth. Secondly, to enhance the nation’s strategic security, especially vis-a-vis China on the border and vis-a-vis Pakistan on the terrorist front. His purely partisan objective of ridding the country of Congress rule for ever (i.e. "Congress Mukth Bharat”) is not addressed here. However, let me add that the country needs and our parliamentary system of government calls for a strong and viable opposition party of an all-India character. Let us hope that the grand old party will somehow put its house in order soon. The rise of the so called "Third Party” is a non starter and a mirage. 

From Modi’s perspective and that of most analysts of the Indian scene today, rapid growth is possible only by creating a business friendly political and economic environment at home and thereby promoting large scale domestic and foreign investment in manufacturing and infrastructure (i.e. roads, bridges, railways, schools, hospitals, etc.). Agriculture should be transformed into a profitable enterprise. Accordingly, Modi is doing his best and a bit more to promote domestic investment because doing business in the country has become increasingly more difficult over the decades. Domestic capital is fleeing out of the country. Modi’s foreign trips are aimed to attract foreign direct investment from all major powers like the US and the West, Japan, and even China. He is also working hard on Indian Diaspora as a source of investment, technology transfer, and patriotic help to the land of their origin. Modi is seeking closer political relations and a large scale increase in trade and commerce with SAARC and ASEAN countries, Fiji, Maldives, etc. America is crucial not only for the huge potential of its corporate investments but also as a bell-weather for investments from the rest of the West. Since the new Government assumed office there seems to be a perceptible change in the climate of doing business in the country.

"Link West” Strategy

The visit to Australia was vital in many respects, i.e. the G-20 Summit; Modi-Abbott interaction; free trade agreement by 2016; Indian Diaspora; supply of uranium and nuclear cooperation; and in reinforcing the ‘Link West’ strategy. Yet another chance for Modi and Obama to meet informally was a bonus indeed. While the rest of the West ostracised Modi, the then Gujarat Chief Minister was warmly received in Australia in 2004, it must be added.

In order to enhance the nation’s security, Prime Minister Modi opted to move closer to the US. Despite its relative economic and political decline recently, America is still the lone Super Power and strategic and political proximity to that country is the best available means to contain China. India’s bid to rapidly build up defence capabilities, modernise our weapon systems and import "dual use” technologies for joint production of advanced weapons, the US is the best available source for us today. Obama’s "Pivot-Asia” policy of shifting its naval forces from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean is seen by China as a policy aimed against her rise in the region and beyond. The only thing China fears is India’s political and strategic proximity to the US. By inviting President Obama as the Chief Guest at the Republic Day ceremony in Jan 2015, Modi had taken a crucial step forward in this direction. Modi did not allow the long years of his ostracization by the West and the denial of American visa to stand in the way of doing what needs to be done for the economic growth and national security of his beloved homeland. Putting patriotism above personal ego by the leader deserves admiration of one and all.

Close Relations with Neighbours, But....

It is worthwhile to highlight Prime Minister Modi’s declaration that while he is committed to the all round improvement of India’s relations with the next door neighbours, there are "Lakshman Rekhas” that they should not cross. He did not hesitate to declare that enhanced relations with China are not possible unless peace and stability are maintained on the border. He said so openly during the Chinese President Xi’s State Visit in the country when the eminently avoidable and entirely unacceptable intrusion of Chinese forces into Chumar valley occurred. 

In the same vein he did not hesitate to cancel the scheduled meeting of the Foreign Secretaries of India and Pakistan at the very last minute, when despite India objections in advance the High-Commissioner of Pakistan met the separatist Huriyant leaders in his office prior to the meeting. Since then Pakistan has been sulking and expressing its resentment. The unavoidable Modi-Shariff handshake in Kathmandu did not lead anywhere. The latest (December 5th) coordinated multiple terrorist attacks in J&K are to be seen as Pakistan’s way of testing Modi’s resolve. Shooting is also a form of talking! And this is nothing new as far as Pakistan is concerned. Let us hope the terrorist attacks and counter attacks will not escalate into another war between the two arch rivals. 

It is important to let the other nations know when and where we draw the line. But what is far more crucial is to make our warnings credible. After announcing the "Lakshman Rekhas”, it is vital to equip the country with the necessary wherewithal. At the same time it is crucial to put in place the needed international support to restrain the potential violators. Hence the series of Modi initiatives to energise our equation with the US, to rope in Japan and Australia on our side, and to seek to build a coalition of concerned countries in the Asia-Pacific region to contain the aggressive expansionism of China. The US and Germany came out against the terrorist attacks in Kashmir. Whether the new found bonhomie with Obama and the US will go beyond public statements and lead to credible pressure on Pakistan to behave is yet to be seen. I have my doubts because keeping the Kashmir issue alive by all and any means is a question of life and death for the political and military leadership of Pakistan. Each passing year the Kashmir issue is receding further into the periphery of global attention.

Intriguing Invitation from China

In an interesting analysis of Modi’s "Act East” and "Link West” policy, a recent commentary close to the official circles in China noted that the Indian Government and Indian scholars "have not endorsed” the "Asia-Pacific geo-strategy” scripted by countries like the US and Japan. Therefore, China is looking towards India for establishing an "Indo-Pacific era” based on shared interests and avoiding the "Asia Pivot” doctrine, the commentary adds! India and China should overcome their foreign and domestic problems and purse an "Indo-Pacific geo-economic plan” that includes the ancient Silk Road and the new Maritime Silk Road. The analysis says that the Bangladesh-India-Myanmar-Economic Corridor (BIMC) and China-Pakistan Economic Corridor are part of this grand inter-continental plan. In a subtle way China is reminding India of its long standing goals of countering America’s global hegemony and democratisation of the world order!

If this is the nature of China’s response to India’s strategy of moving close to the US (and Japan and Australia) with a view to contain China, the trial balloon need not be dismissed in a hurry. May be we are on the threshold of an uncharted terrain. The real touchstone in this scenario is whether this means that China is ready to settle the border issue amicably in the near future? If this is a likely prospect, India should continue its policy of political, economic, and strategic proximity with the US with greater vigour. We should test the Chinese sincerity in this regard. The dragon cannot be trusted. We should not expect quick outcomes. In the interim we can say that Modi is on the right course. 

The Russian Link 

The impending visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin to India (10-11 December 2014) is happening at the most opportune time for us. The opportunity should be fully utilised to revitalise, expand, and intensify our historic and close bilateral relations. The new global context of growing hostility between the US and the West on one side and Russia on the other is an area India has to watch carefully as we move closer to the US. Of late, the US, the NATO, and the Western powers are doing everything possible to push Russia’s Putin against the wall. Putin is fighting back with determination. At the recent G-20 Summit in Australia, the Western leaders went out of the way to humiliate Putin personally and isolated him socially. This was uncalled for. Putin felt compelled to go home in the midst of the Summit. He will now move closer to China to get even with the US and the West. China has every reason to respond positively. Wary of the U.S "pivot Asia” policy, China is already moving close to Russia. The latest development in this realm is the announcement from Beijing (on 24th November 2014) that China and Russia will hold joint military exercises in the Pacific Ocean and the Mediterranean next year. It seems that new cold war type realignment is underway.

In the evolving global context, it is very important for India to make sure that our close equation with Russia is nurtured further. Our "Link West” should not be at the expenses of our traditional and historical relationship with the former Soviet Union yesterday and Russia ever since. We should not make the mistake of drifting away from Russia as we did in the early years of the end of Cold War. Russia has been a good and dependable friend of India and we need Russia on our side in order to deter China. India should not support American excesses in dealing with Russia. The US also needs access to our economy for its own revival. We are not the India of the 1950s and 1960s. Still, this would be a tight rope walk and we should not lose our balance. 

Global politics are once again on the threshold of transformational changes. India should be ready to not merely deal with the emerging scenario but also play its part to mould it to our advantage. India today is a global player and we should do our act with confidence and perseverance. 

The policy to "Act East” and "Link West” has come at the right time and let us hope it works. Prime Minister Modi deserves the support of all the people as he leads the struggle to translate his promises into performance.  

DR. RAMESH BABU is a specialist in International Relations, American Politics and Foreign Policy. 
He is a Visiting Professor at the University of Hyderabad, 20132014 and 
Scholar in Residence, Foundation for Democratic Reforms, Hyderabad. Formerly, 
he was Sir Pherozeshah Mehta Professor of Civics and Politics, University of Mumbai. 
Email: brameshbabu08@gmail.com
 
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