NEW DELHI: India successfully played host last week to presidents of both Vietnam and Myanmar, two nations which lie at the heart of India’s Look East policy. For a country where many seem obsessed with China’s string-of-pearls strategy to encircle, ipso facto, contain India, this was nothing short of a geostrategic coup.
While these developments have indeed provided thrust to India’s eastward ho, they have also shown that probably for the first time New Delhi has come up with a concerted bid to match China’s activism, often interpreted here as Beijing’s policy of containment.
Foreign policy expert and former diplomat G Parthasarathy says, New Delhi has successfully managed to dilute China’s attempts to undermine India’s relations – both bilateral and multilateral – in south-east and east Asia. “This upgrade and improvement of our relations with Myanmar and Vietnam dilutes the Chinese effort and, in fact, constitutes a counter to Chinese attempts to contain India through its relations with Pakistan and other countries,” he explains.
“I can sense and welcome a new and proactive approach in India’s Look East policy,” he adds.
China’s known opposition to oil exploration in South China Sea could not prevent an agreement between ONGC Videsh and PetroVietnam during President Truong Tan Sang’s visit. The deal was signed at a time when the chief of Vietnam’s powerful Communist Party Nguyen Phu Trong was touring Beijing. Similarly, New Delhi managed to get commitments from Thein Sein, Myanmar’s first civilian President in nearly 50 years, that Naypyidaw would not allow its territory to be used by insurgents against India. India also announced a credit line of $500 million for development of infrastructure in Myanmar.
While most agree that India’s Look East plans have now acquired the proverbial cutting edge, there still seems to be some difference on whether both New Delhi and Beijing are effectively following a policy of containment. Strategic affairs expert B Raman believes it is not possible for China to contain India and vice-versa. “I’ll call it activism on the part of China and not containment. With the recent developments, we are also showing the same activism, something which was missing earlier. We have found out that just keeping quiet is not going to help,” he says, adding that India’s activism has for the first time gone beyond the boundary dispute.
While these engagements have been taking shape, the foreign ministry has gone out of its way to rule out any acrimony, even rivalry, with China, repeatedly emphasizing that relationships between the nations are not a zero sum game. It has even held press briefings to enlighten media about covering a sensitive issue like ties between the two countries.
MEA’s stand is best exemplified by former diplomat M K Bhadrakumar when he says “fanciful interpretations are being introduced to what are engagements between countries based on legitimate requirements”. He adds, “These two countries are buoyant economies and we have very strong reasons to engage with them. I don’t know how people can say that these engagements are aimed at Beijing.”