THE “LOOK EAST” THRUST of India’s foreign policy, articulated by then prime minister PV Narasimha Rao in Singapore in the early 1990s, has over the years led to an improvement in relations with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries—Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. Trade with the region has skyrocketed; investment from ASEAN countries is flowing into India; and much else is happening in areas of scientific, strategic and cultural cooperation. India has played a key role in regional bodies, such as ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), that emerged in post-Cold War Southeast Asia.
One of the declared objectives of the Look East policy was to link India’s northeast region to its Southeast Asian neighbours. Many argued that the government should develop this connection in order to entice Indian industry into the region and use it as a manufacturing hub. From there, industry would have access to markets in southwest China and, through Burma, to Southeast Asia. In turn, the economically backward region would prosper from greater economic and logistical ties.
Unfortunately, India has not been very successful in using the troubled Northeast to access the tiger economies of Southeast Asia. Twenty years after the formal announcement of India’s Look East policy, Indian business is looking east, but across the seas. Almost its entire trade with Southeast and East Asian countries is happening through the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean.
Some links, such as the road connecting Manipur’s border town of Moreh with Burma’s second largest city, Mandalay, have been completed; but few other efforts to connect the Northeast to Southeast Asia have made satisfactory progress. In 2008, India began work on the Kaladan multi-modal transport project, which aims to modernise Burma’s Sittwe port in the state of Rakhine (formerly Arakan) and then dredge the Kaladan River up to the borders of Mizoram. This is meant to create a sea–river access route to connect the Northeast with the Indian mainland—an alternative to Bangladesh’s Chittagong–Ashuganj–Akhaura route.
But work on the Kaladan project is running far behind schedule. Frequent violence between the Muslim Rohingya and the Buddhist Rakhine communities rocked the Rakhine state in 2012, and further delays are expected due both to the violence and to sluggishness on the part of India. In addition, Mamata Banerjee’s opposition to the Teesta River water sharing agreement has upset Bangladesh’s otherwise friendly Awami League government, making it unlikely that India will be able to use the Chittagong port to access the Northeast from mainland India anytime soon.
Contrast Look East with China’s Bridgehead strategy, which was outlined in 2009 by China’s president at the time, Hu Jintao. The strategy encourages China’s under-developed Yunnan province to access neighbours in Southeast Asia and South Asia, and aims to transform the huge but backward province into a major transport and economic hub. Yunnan shares a 4060 km-long border with Burma, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. (At the peak of the Second World War, it was also connected to northeast India, through Upper Burma, by the 1736-km Stillwell Road, which is now in disrepair.) It is uniquely located at the convergent point of the 9+2 Pan Pearl River Delta Economic Cooperation rim, the China-ASEAN Free Trade Area rim and the Greater Mekong Sub-region Economic Cooperation zone.
In the past three years, billions of yuan have been spent on developing roads, rail and river transport networks to connect Yunnan to its neighbours. A new airport opened in the province’s capital, Kunming, in July 2012, and an increasing number of flights now connect Kunming to other Asian cities. (This includes a direct flight to Kolkata run by China Eastern Airlines.) Five Southeast Asian countries—Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam—have opened consulates in Kunming, and Australia has opened a trade office there. By contrast, the whole of northeast India does not have a single foreign consulate, except a small Bangladesh visa office in Agartala that was opened in 1974.
Although Beijing monitors Yunnan closely and implements huge infrastructure projects to ensure land–air–rail–river connectivity with neighbouring countries, the provincial authorities of Yunnan say they enjoy considerable freedom in developing trans-border relationships, particularly when it comes to cultural and economic ties.
“This will make Yunnan a major bridgehead in China’s communication and cooperation with Southeast Asia, South Asia and the Mekong River nations,” Zhang Bin, deputy secretary general of China Yunnan International Center, an organisation set up to promote cultural exchange between Yunnan and the neighbouring countries, said about the Bridgehead strategy. “And we in Yunnan are shaping this strategy as much as anybody in Beijing.”
The Chinese have also been quick to see the geo-strategic importance of Yunnan and its long, shared borders. The province will soon have a huge refinery connected by a long oil-and-gas pipeline to Kyaukpyu on Burma’s Rakhine coast. Much of China’s oil and gas imports from the Middle East will be pumped into the Arakan–Yunnan pipeline and taken to southwestern China for distribution across its southern and western provinces. This will help the Chinese cut down on shipping oil and gas imports from the Middle East all the way to eastern China coasts through the strait of Malacca, between Indonesia and Sumatra, which Chinese strategists have called a “choke point”.
“This will save huge expenses and spare us much trouble,” said Li Zhu, vice-director of the Research Institute on Indian Ocean Economics at Yunnan University of Finance and Economics. “Energy imports are crucial to our growing economy and this pipeline going up to the refinery in Yunnan is very important for us.”
As a result, the recent violence in Rakhine province also concerns China. “We are worried over the situation in the Rakhine state, because we have made so much big time investments there,” said Li.
China’s approach in the Yunnan region has been mutually beneficial: for China, Yunnan is proving to be a gateway to South and Southeast Asia; for Yunnan, interest in the region has translated into massive economic benefits; investments are pouring into plantation crops like tea and coffee, and into manufacturing, while a number of large-scale hydropower projects are also planned for the province (similar to the large number of hydropower projects planned by India in Arunachal Pradesh).
Tourism is also booming in Yunnan (unlike in India’s northeast, where tourism remains inhibited due to a lack of connectivity, infrastructure and investments). Yunnan tourism official Xiangyun Wang said 40 million tourists visited the province in 2011. “This includes one million foreign tourists,” she said.
Yunnan, called the land of “eternal spring” for its great weather, is also home to 25 ethnic nationalities that are different from China’s dominant Han population. This is almost half of China’s 53 non-Han racial groups. Memories of violence against these non-Han people during the Cultural Revolution are fading, and the Chinese tourism industry is now projecting Yunnan as the country’s “diversity show case”, with impressive cultural events organised in landscaped minority villages.
Kunming mayor Zhang Zulin claimed that the province’s tourism revenue touched nearly 40 billion yuan in 2011—nearly 10 percent of the province’s GDP. Because their traditions, lifestyles, attire and foods are all part of the Yunnan experience that is being offered to tourists, many of Yunnan’s minority populations are benefitting from the tourist trade.
Since 2009, the Chinese government has pumped in funds to overhaul infrastructure in areas such as Dali, Xishuangbanna, Lijiang and Shangri-La. At such tourist attractions, known for their natural beauty and colourful culture, visitors are greeted by the sight of huge resorts that have recently been constructed or are under construction. At Xishuangbanna alone, there are 60 international passageways, including nine major border crossings and two wharves connecting the area to neighboring countries. The total length of highway network in its vicinity will reach 300 km by the end of 2015, according to the local department of transportation.
In the eighth K2K (Kunming–Kolkata) forum, held in Kunming over four days in November 2012, it was resolved to push both Beijing and Delhi to open a “land corridor” between Kunming and Kolkata. The forum, which is organised by Yunnan Development Research Council and the Kolkata-based Center of Studies in International Relations and Development, was started a decade ago by Chinese and Indian academics hoping to promote sub-regional cooperation between Yunnan and West Bengal as part of a government policy to develop bilateral ties. Although the Chinese welcome the land corridor and have discreetly suggested that the old Stillwell Road could be used for this purpose, Indian officials are less than enthusiastic about it: military leaders fear this road will help the Chinese in the event of a war and trade officials suspect it could help the Chinese dump their goods in northeast and eastern India.
“These fears are not baseless,” said analyst Ambuj Thakur, who has been working on the frontier policy of India and China. “But all this is because Yunnan has already emerged as a developed economy with much to export, while India’s east and northeast have remained largely backward with so little to sell. We have much to learn from the Chinese, surely, in frontier policy.”
A lack of clarity on India’s part will result in confusion about both its internal policy in the Northeast, and its foreign policy in the region. India cannot afford to be indecisive—it must either ramp up the Look East policy in the Northeast and develop road–rail–air connectivity with southeast Asia and southwest China, or it must back down because it is unsure of the consequences of opening up the Northeast. The latter choice, however, will work against India’s quest for influence in a part of Asia that will count for a great deal in a future world order.
Subir Bhaumik is a former BBC correspondent and author of two acclaimed books on India’s Northeast, “Insurgent Crossfire” and “Troubled Periphery.” He is based in Kolkata.