For years, India’s main security problem was in the west. Pakistan, Pakistan, Pakistan—the troublesome neighbor consumed the attention of policy-makers in Delhi. But with the rise of China and Southeast Asia, things are changing. Events like last December’s epic Indonesia-to-India, 8,000-kilometer car rally suggest a new outlook in Delhi—conveniently termed its “Look East” policy.
The epic race began in Indonesia and crossed nine countries before finishing in Delhi. It hit eight of the ten ASEAN countries on its winding route, a symbolic celebration of a burgeoning relationship between India and Southeast Asia. “Join the 1.8 billion people as they take this historic journey across India and ASEAN and co-create the continent’s future with them. Take the lead. Share the spotlight with us,” reads the race’s promotional card. It was a symbolic marker of the opening of India’s northeast and its promotion of development and prosperity for this historically backward region.
As a bridge to Southeast Asia, northeast India is critical to Delhi’s outreach to countries like Bangladesh and Burma, both of which share long borders and cultural similarities with India. But northeast India is remote and ignored, the least developed part of the country. Eight states in east and northeast India have more people living in poverty than the 26 poorest African states combined. Infrastructure development is very poor. Illegal mining is widespread. Smuggling—in people, drugs, ivory, and other valuables—is common along the border. Indian and Burmese separatist militants frequently launch attacks from bases on the other side of the border; in the past they sometimes enjoyed state support, back when India and Burma did not get along. Last summer, riots between Bengali immigrants and tribal Indians in Assam resulted in hundreds of deaths, thousands of people displaced, houses and livelihoods destroyed, and a crisis that reverberated across India.
Beyond the car rally there are more concrete signs of a flourishing relationship between India and its neighbors to the east. Pranab Mukherjee, India’s first-ever ethnic Bengali President, will make an historic visit to Bangladesh in March and is expected to call on his in-laws. Back in 2010 India and Bangladesh signed a $1 billion credit agreement to promote infrastructure development and cross-border cooperation between the two countries. It was the highest loan India had ever committed to any country and the largest Bangladesh had ever received. Trade between India and ASEAN countries grew 40 percent, to $80 billion, in the fiscal year that ended in March 2012. That’s about 10 percent of India’s total overseas trade.
India’s relationship with Southeast Asia is one of the more important developments in Asian geopolitics today. Getting this right is important not just for the small-time merchant in Moreh, the dusty backwater town on the Indo-Burmese border, the rice farmer in a rural village in Assam, or the ruling politicians in Kolkata, the historic capital of northeast India; it’s important for the whole of Asia, and America too.