Since the early 1990s, India has been seeking to situate the country’s troubled Northeast at the heart of what eventually evolved into its so-called ‘Look East’ policy. The enthusiasm over the ‘Look East’ thrust of Indian foreign policy has also grown as Europe and the US have found themselves mired in economic stagnation with no immediate prospect of recovery. This has compelled India to look to Southeast and East Asia as priorities for developing trade and commerce in order to keep its own economy in shape and post reasonable growth rates. This has led Indian policymakers and analysts to revise their attitudes on the country’s long troubled Northeast. Some have gone to the extent of saying that this new ‘strategic vision’ could be a ‘game-changer’ for Asia, especially because it has the potential to bring China, India, and Southeast Asia—home to nearly half the humanity—closer to high levels of economic integration and capable of making the region the world’s number one economic hotspot. Various regional initiatives such as the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) and Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) are important steps in this regard.
For India, using the Northeast region to link up with these tiger economies holds an allure similar to that of icing on a cake: it could end the long decades of isolation for the remote region and turn it into a strategic bridge giving India access to the East. Delhi is driven as much by domestic as by foreign policy concerns to ‘Look East’ through the country’s Northeastern region.
The end of the region’s multiple insurgencies and violent homeland agitations that led to militarization eating into vital resources that could be more gainfully used for development, is a prospect welcomed by any regime in Delhi: success in conflict resolution in an area ‘that looks less and less India and more and more like the highlands of South-east Asia’ as anthropologist Peter Kunstadter had described it, would beef up the country’s claims to success in institutionalizing pluralism and democracy and enhance its global standing at a time when it seeks a permanent seat in the UN Security Council. Securing a place at the global high table appears more difficult should India remain a country of proliferating insurgencies and violent agitations: the festering of such conflicts raises questions over the country’s ability to handle its internal problems. Thus there is great impetus for taking the ‘Look East’ initiative forward. It is also time, however, to examine the progress that has so far been made in order to introduce whatever course correction may be necessary and reevaluate the paradigm in which the ‘Look East’ thrust is conceived.
Since there is considerable literature on the origins and unfolding of India’s ‘Look-East’ policy, this paper will seek to focus on the considerable hurdles and limitations encountered in carrying forward India’s ‘Look East’ through Northeast—problems caused by the nature of physical terrain, the history of violent conflicts in the region and its immediate neighbourhood which remains volatile, and the poor state of transport infrastructure and local industries in Northeast India and Myanmar, through which India has to access other ASEAN countries by land. In view of these limitations, it will never be easy for India to ‘look east’ through its Northeast which opens into the conflict-ridden, poorly developed areas of Myanmar, mostly located on difficult physical terrain.
It will be argued that although India will have to try to use the Northeast as a land bridge to Southeast Asia—more for ending the isolation of this frontier region to boost its future growth—India and its economy will largely have to ‘look east’ through the sea into Southeast Asia for trade and human movement for a wide variety of reasons. It makes definite logistic and economic sense to try using the Northeast to open out to south-west China, which unlike Southeast Asia, is landlocked, but decision making levels in India are still divided on issues like reopening the World War II vintage Stillwell Road. This introduces an element of uncertainty on whether or not India is prepared to take some risks that go with allowing the ‘Look East’ to blossom to its full potential by using the Northeastern ‘land bridge’. Security concerns, especially related to Chinese military presence and China’s growing influence in Myanmar, tend to hamper India’s march ahead with its initiatives for the ‘Look East’ policy.