Look East Policy Could Be the Kohinoor for North East India

Former Prime Minister of India Atal Bihari Vajpayee had India's 'Look East' policy in mind when he proposed at the ASEAN-India summit in Bali (Indonesia) 2003 the holding of an India-ASEAN car rally "to draw dramatic attention to our geographical proximity".

A possible route according to him could be from Guwahati in the North-east India, through Burma, Thailand and Cambodia to Hanoi in Vietnam. He said then "It would draw commercial interest in infrastructure along the route, promote tourism and development".

The India-ASEAN car rally has since become a reality. Flagging off the First India-ASEAN Rally at a colorful function at the Nehru Stadium in Guwahati (Assam) on Nov. 23, 2004, the present Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh said, "We are now rediscovering the age old relations".

While addressing the recent meeting of the North East council Dr Singh said the North East India could be a gateway for India for the ASEAN and East Asia it is for the North East Council to build on this. During his visit to the North East In November 2004 Dr Singh described the region as the "gateway" to India's engagement with the Association for South East Asian Nations and with the sub-regional grouping, BIMST-EC (Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand-Economic Cooperation))

The recent inauguration of a highway project to link the North-East to Thailand via Myanmar, a rail project connecting Manipur to Yangon, and the signing of an agreement for a gas pipeline from Myanmar through the North-East and Bangladesh to Kolkata, are all opportunities in the making for the region, which is also rich in natural resources

If the concerned governments, particularly that of India, Burma and Thailand, and local authorities of these countries are serious about their declared intentions, then these new initiatives would indeed rediscover, renew and rejuvenate the age-old cultural and historical ties between the peoples of South-east and North East India. In turn, greater interaction would undoubtedly boost trade, commerce and tourism prospects in the entire region.

In Asia, political boundaries have separated peoples who have cultural, historical, racial and ethnic affinities and share socio-economic and climate conditions

The moot point is whether the Government of India is only trying to become closer with the Southeast Asian countries by using northeast region as a "conduit" for its economic development. If so, it will be disastrous in the long run. You cannot have "Look East Policy" or "Indo-ASEAN Car Rally" only to please neighboring countries. But the core issue is how to make the people of the region aware that New Delhi is equally concerned for their security and well-being.

The recent statement of the Union Minister for Development of the North East Region (DONER), PR Kyndiah that the North-East Region is no more "sensitive" but "strategic" to not only the entire country but also the neighboring countries like China, Bangladesh, Bhutan, and Myanmar has full of sense.

Though the north-east has enormous natural and human resources, India's north-east has always been neglected by the central government in New Delhi. As a result, tribals (Nagas, Mizos, Karbis, Meities, Khasis, Garos, Bodos etc) in these mountainous areas remain economically and educationally backward.

Even though India is making a small late beginning towards the East Asia via the North East, China has already started the process very fast. Recognization of Sikkim as an integral part of India Opening up of the Nathula pass between Sikkim and Tibet are all measures towards this Chinese Strategic and economic thinking

China also wants the Old Burma Road, which connects China's southwestern Yunnan province with Burma, opened. Likewise, to increase trade and commercial activities with India, China wants a direct flight between Calcutta in West Bengal and Kunming, the fast-growing capital of Yunnan that was closed to trade in the '60s

Last year, a 70-member delegation from landlocked Yunnan, led by its vice governor, Shao Quiewi, met high-ranking members of the West Bengal government to explore opportunities in trade, investment and cultural cooperation.

Besides tapping tourism and the tea industry with India, China has its eye on ASEAN countries for development of trade. "There are close relations between Yunnan and South-east Asian markets, and Yunnan wants to exploit this. Our trade relationship with Bengal was mutually beneficial till links were snapped in the 1960s," said a member of the Yunnan Chamber of Commerce, who accompanied the delegation. "We are seeking more border points, including the Old Burma Road. Once the road is opened, this will go a long way in developing trade between China and South-east Asian countries".

Question arises as to why China is focusing so much on this part of the world. Reasons for this are many. India's "Look East Policy" worries Beijing because it has cut short latter's expansionist policy with the Southeast Asian countries mainly Myanmar. The Indo-ASEAN car rally has generated tremendous amount of "goodwill mission" with the Southeast Asian countries. The idea of "Indo-ASEAN Car Rally" was to make grounds for partnership in the economic developments of the sub-continent and the "Look East Policy" was in that direction and certainly, the northeast region will act as an "Economic bridge" between the rest of the country and the Southeast Asian countries.

Again China's deliberate move towards the ASEAN and East Asia and trying to mend ways with India has strategic reasons behind it. United States of America is trying to develop a free trade area with Taiwan -Japan .A US-Taiwan-Japan FTA could provide a shield against Beijing's political clout and spur so-called "competitive liberalization" in East Asia by encouraging countries including Japan and ASEAN members to enter into FTAs with Taiwan. China feels its plan to push an "ASEAN plus three" free trade area (the three being China, Japan and South Korea)- a bloc that would deliberately exclude Taiwan and the USA could not materialize without getting India to act as a buffer in its strategic plan as such its making all this serious noices

It's heartening to see that India has finally woken up from its slumber and has started acting fast on its Look East Policy. The government of India off late is seriously engaging Myanmar in its strategic repositioning against China and the United States of America towards this part of the world.

Burma has shot back to the top of India's foreign policy agenda following Indian President APJ Abdul Kalam's visit last month, and battle lines are now being drawn in New Delhi over the contentious question of how to deal with the military junta