Engagement with East Asia is a plus for India
The best thing that can be said about last week’s first East Asian Summit is that it is starting off on rather low expectations. Even before the summit started the United States was miffed at being left out. If its intention was to occupy centre-stage of a wider Asian bloc, China too was left dissatisfied with the outcome. The inclusion of India, Australia and New Zealand (with Russia neither in nor out) achieved the intended purpose of ensuring that the emerging East Asian community (spelt, for the time being, with a small “c”) would not be dominated by China.
What all this means is that the excluded America and the included China have little enthusiasm for the East Asian Summit. For now, all that is certain is that the leaders who attended this year’s summit will meet again next year. But the point of low expectations is a good place to start off for new international organisations, for there is less danger on them failing on their initial promise.
Regardless of whether the East Asian Summit succeeds in creating a coherent grouping, that several East Asian countries felt that India’s presence would be in their interests is a vindication of India’s “Look East” policy. It suggests that the Indian government must launch more ambitious initiatives with ASEAN and East Asian nations, and strengthen its bonds with countries with common interests. India must engage Japan both more broadly and more deeply. ASEAN, with its preferance for discussing economic and trade issues, provides India with an opportunity to move forward on development issues, SAARC being largely useless for this purpose. Despite all sorts of alphanumerical acronyms surrounding it, ASEAN remains at the heart of the East Asian community, and India would do well to enlarge its institutional links with this grouping.
For now, Indian foreign policy’s ‘main event‘ continues to be the West. That itself should be enough reason to enhance its engagement with the East. The consideration that initiated the “Look East” policy is more valid today than ever. And it does not come at the cost of relations with the West.