ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Foreign Policy : Looking East


The past few months have seen a flurry of diplomatic visits by Indian leaders to south-east Asia and vice versa. There was the visit of Indonesian president Wahid in early 2000 and the two visits by the number two in Myanmar's military junta, Maung Aye. The Indian defence and foreign ministers went to Vietnam, last September president K R Narayanan put in a week at Singapore, seen as the gateway to the ASEAN, and more recently prime minister Vajpayee returned from a week-long trip to Vietnam and Indonesia. The visits were ostensibly to re-emphasise the long-standing historical ties of friendship between India and south-east Asia. However, there was some looking ahead as well, at the role India envisions for itself in the future. They underscored India's new 'look east' foreign policy and its desire for closer economic and strategic ties with south-east Asia. Earlier in the 90s, attempts were made to promote economic ties with the region and, while laudable objectives were set, there was little follow-up. The timing too was not propitious with the meltdown of the economies of the region.

Foreign minister Jaswant Singh's visit to Vietnam and Laos in October saw the signing of the Mekong-Ganga accord and is expected to make for closer interaction in the areas of tourism, trade, education, culture and information technology. Vajpayee's visit has opened up more areas of cooperation, especially in trade, defence and education. A palpable difference this time was that India's approach to these countries was more surely grounded. The progressive opening up of the Indian economy has meant that India is now a market which these countries have to take seriously. The country's skilled knowledge-workers are holding the attention of the west. The agreements signed in the areas of oil exploration, information technology and education with Vietnam, who currently chairs the ASEAN, and Indonesia, India's largest trading partner in the bloc, should serve as stepping stones to greater economic engagement with the region. The agreements on oil exploration especially reflect India's incipient effort as part of its energy security plan to seek to source some of its oil and natural gas needs from the east and thus reduce its dependence on the Gulf states.

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