India's Look East Policy

India Looks East to Strengthen Economic and Strategic Relations

A woman talks on her cell phone as a passenger jet flies over the Jari Mari slum before landing at Mumbai Airport, on February 3, 2009 in Mumbai, India. Getty Images

India’s Look East Policy

India’s Look East Policy is an effort being made by the Indian government to cultivate and strengthen economic and strategic relations with the nations of Southeast Asia in order to solidify its standing as a regional power. This aspect of India’s foreign policy also serves to position India as a counterweight to the strategic influence of the People's Republic of China in the region.

Initiated in 1991, it marked a strategic shift in India’s perspective of the world. It was developed and enacted during the government of Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao and has continued to enjoy energetic support from the successive administrations of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Manmohan Singh and Narendra Modi, each of whom represents a different political party in India.

India’s Pre-1991 Foreign Policy

Before the fall of the Soviet Union, India made scant efforts to foster close relationships with the governments of Southeast Asia. There are several reasons for this. First, due to its colonial history, India’s ruling elite in the post-1947 era had an overwhelmingly pro-Western orientation. Western countries also made for better trade partners as they were significantly more developed than India’s neighbors. Second, India’s physical access to Southeast Asia was barred by Myanmar’s isolationist policies as well as Bangladesh’s refusal to provide transit facilities through its territory.

Third, India and the Southeast Asian countries were on opposing sides of the Cold War divide. 

India’s lack of interest in and access to Southeast Asia between its independence and the fall of the Soviet Union left much of Southeast Asia open to China’s influence. This came first in the form of China’s territorial expansionist policies.

Following Deng Xiaoping’s ascent to leadership in China in 1979, China replaced its policy of expansionism with campaigns to foster extensive trade and economic relations with other Asian nations. During this period, China became the closest partner and supporter of the military junta of Burma, which had been ostracized from the international community following the violent suppression of pro-democracy activities in 1988.

According to former Indian Ambassador Rajiv Sikri, India missed a crucial opportunity during this period to leverage India’s shared colonial experience, cultural affinities and lack of historical baggage to build strong economic and strategic relations with Southeast Asia.

Implementation of the Policy

In 1991, India experienced an economic crisis that coincided with the fall of the Soviet Union, which had previously been one of India’s most valued economic and strategic partners. This prompted Indian leaders to reevaluate their economic and foreign policy, which led to at least two major shifts in India’s position toward its neighbors. First, India replaced its protectionist economic policy with a more liberal one, opening up to higher levels of trade and striving to expand regional markets.

Second, under the leadership of Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao, India ceased to view South Asia and Southeast Asia as separate strategic theaters. 

Much of India’s Look East Policy involves Myanmar, which is the only Southeast Asian country that shares a border with India and is seen as India’s gateway to Southeast Asia. In 1993, India reversed its policy of support for Myanmar’s pro-democracy movement and began courting the friendship of the ruling military junta. Since then, the Indian government and, to a lesser extent, private Indian corporations, have sought and secured lucrative contracts for industrial and infrastructure projects, including the construction of highways, pipelines and ports. Before the implementation of the Look East Policy, China enjoyed a monopoly over Myanmar’s vast oil and natural gas reserves.

Today, competition between India and China over these energy resources remains high. 

Furthermore, while China remains Myanmar’s biggest weapons supplier, India has boosted its military cooperation with Myanmar. India has offered to train elements of the Myanmar Armed Forces and share intelligence with Myanmar in an effort to increase coordination between the two countries in combating insurgents in India’s Northeastern States. Several insurgent groups maintain bases in Myanmar territory.

Since 2003, India has also embarked on a campaign to forge free trade agreements with countries and regional blocs throughout Asia. The South Asia Free Trade Agreement, which created a free trade area of 1.6 billion people in BangladeshBhutanIndiaMaldivesNepalPakistan and Sri Lanka, came into effect in 2006. The ASEAN–India Free Trade Area (AIFTA), a free trade area among the ten member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and India, came into effect in 2010. India also has separate free trade agreements with Sri Lanka, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia.

India has also boosted its cooperation with Asian regional groupings such as ASEAN, the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) and the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). High-level diplomatic visits between India and the countries associated with these groupings have become increasingly common the last decade. 

During his state visit to Myanmar in 2012, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced many new bilateral initiatives and signed around a dozen MOUs, in addition to extending a line of credit for $500 million. Since then, Indian companies have made significant economic and trade agreements in infrastructure and other areas. Some of the major projects taken up by India include the resurfacing and upgrading of the 160-kilometer Tamu-Kalewa-Kalemyo road and the Kaladan project that will connect Kolkata Port with Sittwe Port in Myanmar (which is still in progress).

A bus service from Imphal, India, to Mandalay, Myanmar, is expected to launch in October 2014. Once these infrastructure projects are completed, the next step will be connecting the India-Myanmar highway network to the existing portions of the Asian Highway Network, which will connect India to Thailand and the rest of Southeast Asia.