Soviet Union disintegrated in the 1990’s as the world was rejecting communism and the European Union was gaining impetus in world scenario. The process of globalisation was sweeping the world day by day where Non Aligned Movement (NAM) was losing its relevance. Thus evolved the “Look East” policy of India, which emerged out of the changed international system in the early 1990s, economic stagnation and political turmoil within the country. The changed focus on economic content of international relations, emergence of regional economic groupings, rise in the forces of globalization, slow process of economic integration within South Asia and China’s growing assertiveness in the Asia-Pacific region were also the contributing factors for this approach. Since the enunciation of the “Look East” policy, India started giving priority to South East Asia in its foreign and economic policies. The current phase of the “Look East” policy marks the beginning of a vibrant relationship on the economic, political and strategic fronts wherein the economic potentials of this policy emphasises a link to the economic interests of the North Eastern region of India. In recent years, the development of this region is being factored into the overall strategy of national development, as well as in the conduct of India’s relations with other countries.
Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) is seen as an inter-regional grouping that acts as a bridge between the South Asian Association of Regional Co-operation (SAARC) and Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries, which would potentially increase trade, taking advantage of the Bay of Bengal region and East coast of the Indian Ocean. Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Bhutan and Nepal are the nations involved in this co-operation. Even though the percentage of trade within these nations is very small as of now, it brings to the table much more than what SAARC does to the South Asian nations of India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and Sri Lanka. BIMSTEC Free Trade Agreement is more comprehensive in scope covering trade in goods as well as services unlike the only goods trade via SAFTA. The advantage of BIMSTEC is the potential to unleash industrial restructuring and provide connectivity to the geographically congruent regions, which has not been tapped into up till date. BIMSTEC nations have recognized the importance to create air, sea and land linkages amongst each other including the ‘open sky policy’ wherein Thailand, Myanmar, India and Bangladesh would facilitate transport from Bay of Bengal to South China Sea and the railway links between India, Myanmar and Thailand are being considered to have a comprehensive transportation system among these strategic nations. India had held weary relationships with Thailand due to their pro-US alliance however; the NDA government of Mr AB Vajpayee accelerated good relations with USA that acted as a catalyst in improving relations with Thailand. Similarly the relations with Myanmar have thawed since 2000 in view of the recognition by India of the growing economic hold of ASEAN and the national security interest of the North East. Further the improved India and Myanmar relations have led to capitalizing on Myanmar’s gas reserves and have proved beneficial for the exploration by the ONGC, GAIL and OVL. Domestically, BIMSTEC as an initiative, gives a sense of oneness among the North Eastern states of India that have felt ostracized for a long time. Free trade and connectivity in the region would end the remoteness of the region and accelerate better conditions to address insurgency. The initiative has helped India in promoting peace and stability in the region as well as to put India at par with China and Western nations when it comes to regional security.
Since the initiation of the “Look East” policy in 1991, bilateral relations between India and ASEAN have progressed rapidly. India’s ties with ASEAN were upgraded to a Sectoral Dialogue Partnership in March 1993 in 03 areas namely trade, investment and tourism. Due to its sustained efforts, India–ASEAN relations were further upgraded to a Full Dialogue Partnership at the 05th ASEAN Summit in Bangkok in December 1995. At the ASEAN Post Ministerial Conference in Jakarta in July 1996, ASEAN and Indian ministers outlined a vision of a shared destiny and intensified cooperation in all fields, identifying specific areas for cooperation, like infrastructure, human resource development, science and technology and tourism, among others. The increasingly close cooperation between India and ASEAN led to the strengthening of not only economic ties but also security linkages, resulting in India’s admission to the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) in 1996. India’s admission to the ARF signifies the acceptance of its role and position in the Asia-Pacific region and the increasing engagement of India in strategic discourses of the Asia-Pacific region underlines its commitment to the objective of sustaining regional peace and stability.
The collaboration of ASEAN and BIMSTEC along with India’s rising regional prowess not only ensures stability in the region, but also presents a feasible alternative to bettering economic relations and cooperation to move away from conflict ridden areas and towards a progressive environment. The over ambitious project of India wherein collaborating with ASEAN nations along with Japan, China and South Korea would result in gathering half the world’s population in one regional hegemony which would be bigger than NAFTA in terms of trade and EU in terms of income. Moreover, this friendship and alliance via ASEAN and BIMSTEC as a collaborative effort can further enable the aspiration of India as a P5 member in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC).