Cafe Conversations

7India-ASEAN Relations: New Dimensions in the context of India’s Look East Policy

Date: November 7, 2014


  1. Mr. Ram Tirath Jindal, IAS, Addl. Chief Secretary, Industries & Commerce, Govt. of Assam.
  2. Prof. M.P. Bezbaruah, Prof. of Economics, Gauhati University.
  3. Mr. George Chacko, Confederation of Indian Industries, Assam Chapter.

The event started with a welcome address by Gaurav Dasgupta, (Coordinator of the Event) followed by an address by the Principal of Cotton College, Guwahati. Mr. R.T. Jindal started the discussion with a brief presentation on ASEAN & India’s Look East Policy. He emphasized the importance of developing the trilateral highway between India, Myanmar and Thailand which would boost trade and greatly benefit the regions of North East India. He presented a detailed report showcasing data of exchange of trade between India and ASEAN nations.

Prof. M.P. Bezbaruah raised the issue of exchange of trade items between India and Thailand engaging the entire audience with his detailed view on the subject. Questions were asked by members of the audience on the role of underground elements in the Moreh border of Manipur in obstructing flow of healthy commerce between India and Myanmar.

The audience which had students from Cotton College, Gauhati University, Darwin, TISS & Handique raised many relevant issues including the need to develop infrastructure, better security and curbing drug trafficking along the India-Myanmar border. Mr. George Chacko gave a short speech on the need to develop cultural exchange and the need for good quality teachers who could go to ASEAN nations and fulfill the demand for teachers and professors. The opportunities of developing medical tourism and educational exchange were also discussed. The session ended with closing remarks by the speakers and feedback by the audience members.


Shashi Tharoor
Future of Non-Alignment in India’s Foreign Policy

Date: August 17, 2011

The Youth Forum on Foreign Policy (YFFP) organised an interactive panel discussion on the future of non-alignment in India’s foreign policy with Dr. Shashi Tharoor, Member of Parliament and former Minister of State for External Affairs, and Dr. Srinath Raghavan, Senior Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi. Mr. Daniel Lak, veteran journalist and former South Asia correspondent for the BBC, moderated the panel.

Terms of Reference
The panel’s objective was to take a fresh look at non-alignment as a broad basis for India’s foreign policy, as well as how such a policy might manifest itself in India’s decisions in the international arena. Although non-alignment is associated with a largely discredited Nehruvian vision for Indian foreign policy that many have labeled idealist and moralising, recent scholarship has highlighted a traditionally under-emphasised aspect of non-alignment, i.e. that it was a strategic decision made by India not based on ideals but on the realpolitik requirements of the Cold War era. If non-alignment was indeed a strategic decision, or at least aided in achieving beneficial outcomes on the international and domestic political scene for India, it might remain a relevant basis for policy even today, though perhaps with fewer rhetorical trappings compared to its previous avatar.

Summary of Keynote Addresses
Dr. Tharoor opened the discussion with an overview of non-alignment as India’s foreign policy from the early years of independence onwards. Post independence, the world was splitting into two super power blocs (around the United States and the USSR). India was emerging from its colonial experience, and non-alignment seemed the right moral thing to do, in that it allowed a newly independent India to retain its freedom. During the Cold War, non-alignment gave India the strategic autonomy and freedom to make own decisions. It was not neutralism—India always took sides, but not always the same side. No doubt, there were some deviations from non-alignment: for example, in 1971, India signed a formal alliance with the Soviet Union at a time when the US, China and Pakistan stood against India’s position on the question of East Pakistan, which soon became Bangladesh.

Since 1991, the USSR’s disintegration and India’s economic liberalisation gradually transformed the foundations of India’s foreign policy. Whereas earlier nonalignment was employed to preserve India’s political independence, following 1991 India’s foreign policy became more pragmatic and was justified on the utilitarian grounds of economic benefits and national security. Consequently, over the last decade, India’s foreign policy has focused on building friendly relations with countries that can provide economic and security benefits for India. India is steadily improving relations with Africa, Latin America, the US and China—a diversity of partners that would not have been possible under non-alignment strictly interpreted.

At present, although the world is not divided into two superpower blocs, India still sticks to the term ‘non-alignment’ as an expression of the desire to retain strategic autonomy and avoid being grouped into any single camp. Today there are two large groupings in the developing world: the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and the G-77 group of countries. The former deals primarily with political issues, and the latter with economic issues. In the NAM itself, India still relies on political uses of the notion of non-alignment, but in a sense that is very different from the post-independence era.

Dr. Raghavan continued the discussion by providing a deeper historical context to non-alignment as practiced by India. There is a sharp distinction between how nonalignment was practiced in the first 17 years of India’s independence, till 1964 (the year of Jawaharlal Nehru’s death), and in the period since then. In the first period, nonalignment seemed like the moral basis for India’s advocacy on behalf of less developed countries, but it was more than that. It also gave India agenda setting powers in international institutions and forums, i.e. it allowed India to influence which issues became salient in the international community, especially in the United Nations. In that period, India didn’t have any significant military, economic or political power, but nonalignment gave India agenda setting powers.

Following 1964, India’s foreign policy took a more realist turn and was influenced increasingly by self-interest and the need to make India more attractive to the world primarily through international institutions. Non-alignment therefore became a means of achieving foreign policy goals decided on other grounds. In essence, Dr. Raghavan echoed Dr. Tharoor’s description of the economic and security related bases of India’s new foreign policy, but traced their origins much further back than 1991.

Summary of Q&A Session
The Q&A session that followed the keynote addresses covered a diverse range of issues, including public diplomacy, India’s neighbours, Afghanistan, the G-20, climate change, domestic politics in India, and India’s approach to the Middle East. On public diplomacy, there was a discussion of the need for diplomacy to move beyond government-to-government interactions. In this vein, it was pointed out that the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) in recent times has taken a number of proactive steps to not only get its message out to relevant audiences but also to listen to stakeholders in the foreign policy community and in the nation broadly speaking. The MEA now has a Twitter account, a YouTube page, and a lively presence on Facebook.

On India’s neighbourhood policy, there was a concern that in aligning with the US in recent years, India is trying to grow beyond its neighbourhood without in fact addressing the moribund status of an institution such as SAARC or the state of India-Pakistan relations. However, there is also the view that India is in fact interested in economic cooperation in South Asia, but that SAARC is proving to be an inappropriate forum for such cooperation, primarily due to differences with Pakistan. Indeed even Bangladesh, the original proponent of SAARC, has in recent times sought to deepen bilateral relations with India, and India has responded positively.

On Afghanistan, there was a debate on whether India has a legitimate interest in the country and whether India and Pakistan can in fact interact productively in resolving the current situation there. On the one hand, it was argued that while India does have economic interests in Afghanistan, it does not share a land border with the country and therefore can exercise only limited influence there. Pakistan has a much greater role to play in Afghanistan and in that sense India can develop a productive dialogue with Pakistan for the sake of Afghanistan’s future. On the other hand, it was argued that India has $1.2 billion worth of developmental projects in Afghanistan, whose territory also provides a critical gateway between India and Iran. In this sense the relationship between India and Pakistan will always be competitive, because Delhi has a vital interest in ensuring that Islamabad does not unduly influence the future course of events in Afghanistan to India’s detriment.

On global public goods, there was a lively discussion on the role of India in the G-20 and also India’s position in climate change negotiations. In both cases, it was recognised that India, being a rapidly developing country, needs to take a more proactive stance in order to achieve the necessary balance between developed and developing countries. In the G-20, India needs to take a stronger stance on making global institutions and policy decisions more representative of developing country concerns; whereas in climate change negotiations, India should be careful to not be clubbed with China—another rapidly developing country—which has far higher emissions than India. In both cases, the discussion emphasised the need for India to be a part of the solution and not the problem.

Finally, concerns were raised about domestic political fragmentation and its impact on India’s foreign policy, as well as the lack of an Indian position on the Arab Spring of 2011. On the former issue, although coalition politics have made foreign policy making a complicated affair, one can still identify significant continuities in India’s foreign policy over time, which suggests that irrespective of the party or coalition in power, many of the compulsions of international politics remain the same. On the issue of the Arab Spring, although India was conspicuous in its silence, it was suggested that India’s reticence to get involved be seen in light of India’s past record of being too vocal on a number of issues. Therefore it is not entirely inappropriate for India to exercise some restraint toward the Arab Spring, particularly as the issue pertains to the internal matters of sovereign nations.


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