India’s Act East Policy: New Dimensions
by Ambassador TCA Raghavan

, Ambassador Mehrotra, Shri Tikku, Shri O. P. Tandon, Rinpocheji,

I am very grateful to the Media India Centre for Research and Development for having invited me to deliver the Shri Upendra Vajpeyi memorial lecture.

I am not very sure why I was so chosen because I have some familiarity with the stature of the earlier very distinguished speakers who have spoken to you from this podium. But may I only say that I feel very greatly honoured that you have asked me to speak to you on this very important day to recall the life and work of Shri Vajpeyi as a journalist and as a great doyen of journalism and freedom of expression in India. He was of course, as Ambassador Mehrotra said, a man of many parts –freedom fighter, journalist, President of the Delhi Union of Journalists, an academic and also a great institution builder. All these different roles for a single man to perform tells you something about the quality of the life he led. That so many of you are present here on a Sunday evening to recall his life and works also speaks for the quality of the relationships he built up.

Technology is transforming the media world in a way and at a pace which we are often unable to comprehend and there are so many new challenges coming up because different platforms have emerged and different views have emerged. Lines which were otherwise considered to be impermeable between the media, the corporate world and the government are getting blurred. So, it is only appropriate that you recall the works of a great media person in India by observing his birthday through the form of an annual lecture.

I am very grateful and honoured to be here amongst you today. I am deeply appreciative, Ambassador Mehrotra, of your introductory remarks about me.  I don’t know whether they are merited or what I deserve but it is very kind of you to have spoken in the way you did.

The topic you have chosen for me also is something which interests me greatly because usually I am asked to speak on India Pakistan relations or the Afghanistan Pakistan situation. Discussing “Looking East” or “Acting East” is certainly something which has interested me a great deal because it provides me an opportunity to reflect on themes which we otherwise do not spend enough time on. Ambassador Mehrotra is absolutely right that in the nineties, when we began on this path, there was a great deal of hesitancy and that hesitancy, I feel, had certain structural roots and we still find evidence of that from time to time. If you look at the position of India, it is easy to see what those structural roots are because our external policies are really torn in two different directions. There is a continental perspective because of the position of India vis-a-vis the Asian land mass, Central Asia, China and Western Asia. But there is also a maritime perspective vis-a-vis the Indian Ocean. There is, therefore, a dialectic between these two, the maritime and the continental which really informs a great deal of Indian foreign policy today. It did not do so all the time which is why when, in 1992 Prime Minister Narasimha Rao went to Singapore and unveiled so to say the Look East Policy, it was such a big change.

I believe that the continental perspective was reinforced in the years after 1947 although it had always underwritten a great deal of Indian thinking about the outside world. To some extent, this was natural. For about a thousand years we had a ruling class in India which had come from Central Asia and from Persia, tied very much to that Asian land mass. The continental perspective got further reinforced during our colonial history because, while our colonisers came via the ocean, they denied us the means to navigate the oceans ourselves, in intellectual terms at least.  In 1947, when we became independent we suddenly found ourselves confronting a strange dilemma. The creation of Pakistan cut us off from our Central Asiatic, Afghan and Persian land routes, while the fact that the British had withdrawn and with them had gone the royal navy meant also, to some extent, that we were divorced from our maritime legacy and maritime heritage. Through the fifties, sixties and the seventies, it was the continental perspective which informed most of Indian foreign policy. Perhaps it is natural why that should have been so given the frictions and problems in our relationship with China and Pakistan. But in the 1990s, especially in the period between 1989 and 1992, some fundamental changes occurred and when I reflect on it I think these changes had a great deal to do with Prime Minister Narasimha Rao travelling to Singapore and talking about India looking East.

So, what exactly happened between 1989 and 1992 which led to that change? The period between 1989 and 1982 to my mind is a pivotal period of Indian history because our entire external environment was transformed in a brief span of two or three years. If you reflect on the history of that period that becomes very evident. In the early 1990s we have the end of the Cold War through a number of seminal events, the formal end of the USSR, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the beginnings of the breakup of Yugoslavia, the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, in the middle of 1991 the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, a little later, in 1992, the Babri Masjid chain of events and so on.

My point in brief is that between 1989 and 1992 the continental perspective became a burden, and one evidence for this comes out with what happened in Afghanistan. The Soviet Union withdrawal was for many in Pakistan the cause of a deep and profound sense of triumphalism that the template which they had devised vis-a-vis the mujahideen in Afghanistan could now be applied to Kashmir. In late 1989-early 1990, the insurgency began in a way which we had not anticipated and expected in Srinagar and in the Kashmir Valley. In 1991 and 1992 we also had a major economic crisis to confront and that, in turn, required structural changes in our economic policies.

At that time, all these factors clustering together meant that the continental perspective, which had informed so much of our thinking, required a major narrative change and that narrative change was reflected in Prime Minister Narasimha Rao travelling to Singapore and talking about India looking East. If one reflects further on history and see what happened in 1979, we will find it another seminal year of Indian history when our external relationships are all more or less transformed in the space of one year. In 1979 there was the Shia revolution in Iran, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the execution of
Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in what was a decisive setback to the democratic forces in Pakistan etc. In 1979 also, it is important to recall, there was the China Vietnam border war because of a particular triangle which had emerged between China, Vietnam and Cambodia. All these factors meant that our focus had to be much more towards our West rather than towards our East. The Kampuchean issue or the China Vietnam issue and the particular positions we took meant also that there were major differences between India and the other South East Asian countries. ASEAN itself was divided on how to deal with the question of Cambodia, or Kampuchea. All these factors continued up to the early 1990s when the end of the Cold War resolved them and opened our way to South East Asia.

So, it was a combination of internal economic compulsions, change in our western environment and changes in South East Asia too which enabled the beginnings of what was then called the Look East Policy. 1992, therefore, has almost a metaphorical value. It was, thus, a critical year when this cluster of developments meant that you had to go back to the drawing board and going back to the drawing board at that time meant relooking at what our maritime heritage was.

But it is easy to forget what was India’s sense of South East Asia before the twentieth century or early in the twentieth century. Had we totally lost our sense of South East Asia because we were totally engrossed and absorbed, as a colony, with our freedom struggle? Now that history is very important because when you look at Rabindra Nath Tagore travelling to Singapore, to South East Asia, Japan, in the early 1920s and with him a number of intellectuals who were astonished when they saw the linkages which had existed in the past between India and South East Asia. One person in particular stands out among this galaxy of intellectuals who was then engaging with the history of South East Asia, with the history of the interface between India and South East Asia and this is Kali Das Nag.

Kali Das Nag founded, sometime in the early 1930s, “The Society for Greater India” and started a journal called the Journal of Greater India Studies. This was to some extent an assertion of an Indian nationalism which was already reaching maturity in terms of the freedom struggle. But the Greater Indian Society was formed for the study of Indian culture in East Asia, South East Asia and Central Asia. It used terms which are now largely forgotten such as SerIndia, India Minor and Indo China referring broadly to modern Xinjiang, India, South East Asia, and North West Pakistan. Kali Das Nag as early as 1922, then a still young man of thirty, travelled to Switzerland to participate in the peace conference and there he presented a paper entitled “Greater India: A Study in Indian Internationalism”. This was then published in the first issue of the journal of the Greater India Society in 1926 and he wrote in this: “the real secret of Indian success in her career of internationalism was in respect for the individuality of the races and nations which came into contact with them offering their best and evoking the best in others.” This was obviously an implied comment on British colonialism in India or possibly even on the Islamic conquest for, as far as the ancient Indian colonies in South West Asia were concerned, he said, “While political conquerors and economic exploiters they might have been too, they never played a dominant role in this grand drama of creative unity.”

Apart from Kali Das Nag there are other examples and one again which strikes me still is Romesh Chandra Majumdar, one of the great historians of our times. In 1927, he published a book entitled Champa: History and Culture of An Indian Colonial Kingdomin the Far East from the Second to the Sixteenth Century. Nine or ten years later came the first volume of his Svarandvipa: Ancient Indian Colonies in the Far East. Volume Two of this book came out two or three years later. When we think about these works they were an extraordinary achievement.
R. C. Majumdar was then a lecturer in the University of Dhaka, very much a mofussil University. The countries he was researching were Dutch and French colonies, so most of the archaeological work which he wanted to access was either in French or in Dutch, neither of which he knew. In Dhaka he taught himself these languages so that he could read the epigraphic details which had been published by the archaeologists of these countries and then wrote his own works about ancient India’s engagement with these countries. When one talks about India and South East Asia, these older ties and older links, especially the intellectual links, are something which we should keep in mind. Such thinking about India and South East Asia or India and the Far East informed the thinking of many prominent individuals of that time. For instance, Radha Binod Pal, who delivered the famous dissenting judgment in the Japanese War Crimes Tribunal. It was very much of an Indian perspective on events which were otherwise dominated by a western or American narrative.

In any event, 1992 was a big change and much of the change which has happened between India and South East Asia is captured by the India Singapore relationship. I served as a High Commissioner in Singapore for about three and half years so I am aware of the great strides and many of the path-breaking things we did with Singapore which would then be replicated with other countries. This included the double taxation avoidance agreements in 1994, the defence cooperation agreement, a mutual legal assistance treaty, and finally, we had our first ever free trade agreement in the form of a comprehensive economic cooperation agreement with Singapore. In tandem, we developed much closer relations with ASEAN as an organisation and with other ASEAN countries.  All of this was dramatically animated by the presence of ten ASEAN heads of State and Government during our recent Republic Day celebrations at the march past when we commemorated twenty-five years of the full dialogue partnership between India and ASEAN.

This was a deeply symbolic moment but there are inevitably voices that ask whether we have done enough with South East Asia and in all such discussions, there always is the glass half empty or half full syndrome. So, while our relations with Singapore, Malaysia and, to some extent, Thailand have advanced a great deal with other countries, in ASEAN they have not. When I was High Commissioner in Singapore, there were something like 45 flights daily between India and Singapore but there is still no direct connectivity between India and Jakarta, Indonesia is the largest country in ASEAN. So, there is half empty syndrome or half full syndrome.

This debate will continue and there is some merit in the view that in our relations with ASEAN we focus too much on two or three countries and our relations with the other countries in ASEAN have not developed to the same extent. It is also a fair point that our political relationship has grown much faster than our economic or security relationship.

This debate, as I said, will continue, but I really wanted to talk about how our maritime perspective has evolved and I will look at other dimensions of looking east apart from South East Asia and ASEAN. The second rung in this is when we look to our eastern sea board through an organisation called the BIMSTEC and when we look in particular at the Bay of Bengal. The Bay of Bengal is the largest bay in the world and its seven countries comprise some 25% of the world population. In many ways, it is the first interface we have with our external environment when we look East and it is also the zone where our internal and external worlds merge. South and South East Asia both divide and unite the Bay of Bengal. Few people today think of the Bay of Bengal as a region as compared to South Asia or South East Asia and nobody thinks of BIMSTEC in the same terms in which you think of SAARC or ASEAN.

BIMSTEC came into being in 1997 beginning with Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka and Thailand. Subsequently Myanmar joined, and in 2004, BIMSTEC, as the organisation we know it today, emerged with Nepal and Bhutan also joining. So, it has in all seven members. But it is an organisation which, from the very beginning, has been deeply plagued by several structural issues and problems. For instance, it has held only three summits so far. Then India, as the largest economy and the largest country in the Bay of Bengal, had to confront the question on these issues of whether we should be dealing with South East Asia or with South Asia. To my mind, these issues got simplified as our frustrations with SAARC, because of Pakistan, increased. From 2015 and 2016 we started speaking more about BIMSTEC and found that the things that we can do with our South Asian neighbours on the East and with our South East Asian neighbours through BIMSTEC was not possible to do through SAARC. So, connectivity in which we have not made much progress in SAARC became a kind of buzz word as far as BIMSTEC is concerned.

Some people of course say that BIMSTEC is still more of a rebound relationship; that, as SAARC is stuck because of Pakistan, we have turned to BIMSTEC. But to my mind, it is much more important than that; while it is true that BIMSTEC is an alternative narrative to that of SAARC, it also reflects our new economic interest and our strategic compulsions to break out of our periphery and connect to neighbouring regions that have previously been neglected. Evidently there are also strategic factors because the rise of China and initiatives such as the Belt and Road project which aims to increase China’s north to south access to the Indian Ocean via Bangladesh, Myanmar and Sri Lanka pose challenges for India. In response, we are trying to develop East to West connectivity between South and South East Asia across the Bay of Bengal.

We could, therefore, see the Bay of Bengal as the first concentric arc which informs our Look East or Act East policy. The second concentric arc is the one I spoke about first which is South East Asia and the third of course is something which is now very much current and talked about a great deal and that is the Indo Pacific.

When we turn to the Indo Pacific, it is useful to remind ourselves that strange things sometimes happen in diplomacy. One of these strange things was in 2007 when the Japanese Prime Minister was in Delhi and he made a speech to the joint houses of our parliament in which he spoke about India Japan cooperation in the decades to come and he referred to this idea of the Pacific and the Indian Ocean being zones of cooperation. Interestingly enough, he began by talking about someone which appeared in the context of his remarks totally incongruous. Let me quote from what Prime Minister Abe said:

“Where exactly do we now stand historically and geographically?” To answer this question, I would like to quote here the title of a book authored by the Mughal prince, Dara Shikoh, in 1655. We are now at a point at which the Confluence of the Two Seas is coming into being.

The Pacific and the Indian Oceans are now bringing about a dynamic coupling as seas of freedom and of prosperity. A “broader Asia” that broke away geographical boundaries is now beginning to take on a distinct form. Our two countries have the ability – and the responsibility – to ensure that it broadens yet further and to nurture and enrich these seas to become seas of clearest transparence.

In his speech, PM Abe also spoke about Tagore, Radha Binod Pal, Subhash Chandra Bose and others but most interesting is obviously the reference to Dara Shikoh. He was referring to a book of Dara Shikoh called Majmaal Bahrain or ‘The Mingling of the Two Oceans’. Now Dara Shikoh, when he wrote this book, did not have geopolitics in mind since he was talking about philosophy. His book is about exploring Islamic and Hindu mysticism and to see how, through their interface, there is a new creative energy being unleashed in India. But the title lent itself to the Japanese Prime Minister in 2007 reaching far back into Indian history to stress that Japanese and Indian interest coincide in the huge expanse which he called the Indo Pacific.

The Indo Pacific is essentially a maritime perspective and naturally, although it has obviously deep roots and many other antecedents, it is also very clearly related to the major change taking place with Chinese maritime assertion, which in itself is a part of the global rise of China.

I don’t need to describe this in any great detail because it has been discussed or written about in different fora. But in brief, the transformation of China’s role in the world has been dramatic but perhaps not as dramatic as the internal changes in China. In particular is its great achievement of lifting a very huge mass of its people out of poverty. The consequences of this for Chinese self-esteem have a direct bearing on how it accumulates and then projects national power globally. Chinese assertion has focused our mind on the maritime domain and therefore it lies at the heart of Indo Pacific concept. It is no coincidence that the countries who have spoken most about it are Japan, Australia, United States apart, from of, course India. The sub-text of this is that geopolitical competition in the region will play out primarily in the maritime domain and therefore marks a major change from the continental perspective which has so much informed our foreign policy up till now. This transformation has other roots also which are equally compelling. In 1990 or 1991, external trade was possibly about 15% of our total GDP. Today that figure is about 50%, so half of our external trade, which is half of our GDP, is accounted for by external trade and about a third of that external trade comes through a region which we now call Indo Pacific including the South China Sea. So, a maritime perspective has evolved in India because of changes in our economy, the changes in our relationship with the world economy, the changes in our external enjoinment, the changes in continental Asia and of course the rise of China and its maritime assertion.

So, if I sum up, Act East, in structural terms can be seen as three concentric arcs beginning with the Bay of Bengal extending on to ASEAN and South East Asia and the third concentric circle being formed by the term coined –  the Indo Pacific. As I sketched out, this approach to the East has not developed in linear terms. We first engaged with South East Asia, then focused on the circle immediately next to us which is the Bay of Bengal and then finally we have turned to the widest and most nebulous of them all which is the Indo Pacific. The reason why these concentric circles or concentric arcs have emerged are also different. With South East Asia the motive was primarily economic, with the Bay of Bengal it was primarily connectivity driven but the Indo Pacific is more clearly and more evidently strategic in nature. But these three arcs really mean that our foreign policy has now to be defined by the maritime perspective to a much greater extent than hitherto.

What are the challenges this poses for us? Some of these are self-evident although the answer may not just be that you have to focus much more on the naval domain. You have to realise that dealing with China is not just a question of dealing with China on the disputed boundary but even on a wider framework. If you are looking at India from a maritime perspective, how do you, then, situate your relations with Pakistan, your relations with Afghanistan, your relations with Russia and that context throws up a number of very complex issues, much more complex then what is otherwise eluded to sometimes as a two-front war or a two-and-half-front war, because if you bring in the maritime perspective, then you are talking about more than a two-front war. But, to my mind, when we look at the maritime assertion of China it is too simplistic and too easy to slip into the syndrome of a zero-sum game that the rise of China and its maritime assertion necessarily means that we are going to be driven into a position of conflict with China. I don’t think that is going to happen and certainly wisdom lies in ensuring that situation does not arise. A maritime perspective is in that sense different from the continental. Because the continental perspective is defined so much by what happens on land borders, it is much more of a zero-sum game than a maritime perspective will be.

I think I will stop here today as I have spoken enough. Thank you.