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12 March 2020, Gateway House

India’s Eastward Engagement: From Antiquity to Act East Policy

This book offers a bird’s-eye view of India’s strivings to forge close relations with the East, but covering a vast region and swathe of history has inherent drawbacks. The result is a haphazard narrative, focusing more on the contemporary period and lacking in insight or analysis

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This book is an ambitious attempt at capturing India’s engagement with the East from ancient times to the present: it encompasses a vast region and a timeframe of more than nearly two millennia. The authors – S.D. Muni, who is known for his work on South Asia, specifically Nepal, and Rahul Mishra, an upcoming scholar, specialising in South East Asia – try to cover as much ground as possible in showing how India’s relations with the East evolved. Their focus, though, is more on the contemporary period. This work will, therefore, serve the uninitiated well and those wanting a bird’s-eye view of how New Delhi has striven – and the ups and downs it has witnessed – in forging close relations with a region that has been influenced greatly by India. While this approach has its uses, the drawbacks are inherent.

To cover the history of India’s relations with East Asia over such a wide arc of time is a challenge, leading to this becoming a superficial, haphazard narrative, bereft of key insights. For example, the authors say that Indians, being Sun-worshippers, always looked east. This is simplistic and reflects poorly on the quality of the scholarship. That India also looked west, where it was famous for its wealth and scholarship back during the era of the Roman Empire, is well-known. India had also later developed robust relations with the Arab world and eastern Africa.

India’s bonds, especially with South East Asia, however, were much stronger, encompassing culture, religion, art, architecture, dance and drama. This was possible due to the establishment of vibrant trade links due to the two monsoon winds that blew in opposite directions, helping the movement of ships to and fro. A string of well-developed ports along the east coast, such as Kalingapatnam, Masulipatnam and Nagapattinam, and the attraction of South East Asian riches, which ancient Indian texts refer to as Suvarna Dweepa (golden island) and Suvarna Bhumi (golden land), were additional factors in forging these connections.

The haphazardness of the narrative is visible also in the fleeting reference to ancient history that the authors make with hardly any examination of medieval times or the colonial era. They devote considerable space to Jawaharlal Nehru. This is not to belittle his contribution to post-independent India’s policy towards East Asia. But from the beginning of the 20th century, much before the 1947 Asian Relations Conference, a landmark event, fascinating debates took place especially in Tokyo, Calcutta and Shanghai. The most notable of these in the Indian context was the discourse on Asianism in Calcutta when Tenshin Okakura, a Japanese scholar, art critic and an interpreter of the East to the West, had stayed with Rabindranath Tagore and others.

A series of scholarly works (chiefly by R.C. Majumdar, Nilakanta Sastry, George Coedes, etc.) also came out, underscoring some of these aspects and India’s vibrant links with East Asia and its influence. In fact, these writings provided the intellectual basis for the kindling of the idea of an Asian identity and its rich cultural heritage among political leaders who were leading liberation struggles. The Asian Relations Conference was the logical upshot of all this that preceded it.

There are other critical aspects to this subject to which the authors have not paid heed. For example, the unexpected end of the Cold War and the disintegration of the former Soviet Union had a huge impact on India in many ways, most visibly in its foreign relations. Compelled by the sudden disappearance of a long-time close ally and security partner, which coincided with acute difficulties that the Indian economy was facing, the Narasimha Rao government took certain bold steps. As part of a revamp of foreign policy, New Delhi moved quickly to reset its relations with the U.S., put in place a new neighbourhood policy, and launch the Look East policy (LEP) to engage with East Asia, which, by then, had emerged as the new global economic centre of gravity.

Thanks is due, in part, to the LEP, for India has come a long way, becoming an indispensable part of the emerging security equilibrium, even though it has remained a marginal player in economic terms. In comparison, during the Cold War era, India was seen as inconsequential to regional security, irrelevant politically and insignificant economically. Thus, the main purpose for which the LEP was crafted – India gaining in economic heft – has yet to be fully realised. Most studies, including the book under review, tend to ignore this.

Equally important is it to critically assess the reasons why India’s relations with most East Asian countries began to deteriorate after the 1955 Bandung Conference than simply blame it on the Cold War, which had begun soon after World War II. When China waged war against India in 1962, except Malaysia (then Malaya) under Tunku Abdul Rahman, not a single country in the whole of East Asia condemned Beijing or supported New Delhi. This is something that needs objective evaluation.

The authors also make no mention of how India spurned the earnest attempts by the Japanese to forge close economic relations in the early 1950s.

They do not discuss how New Delhi lost an opportunity to be a founding member of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN): Malaysia and Singapore had sought out New Delhi and asked it to join the regional organisation. Had India done so at the time, it may have gained from the enormous economic dynamism that began to sweep the entire East Asian region, starting from the early 1970s. These historical blunders need to be detailed objectively so that they are not repeated.

The LEP’s progress was limited during much of the 1990s, but that changed as India began to log higher economic growth rates from the early 2000s onward. Nonetheless, the tectonic shifts that occurred consequent to the American military withdrawal from the Philippines in 1992 and uncertainty about its deployments, both in South Korea and Japan, propelled India’s salience in regional security. This coincided with the South China Sea dispute building up as China tried to stake its claims aggressively, taking advantage of the power vacuum.

The ASEAN looked at India as a potential countervailing power to China and that was the reason why India was offered Dialogue Partnership. Membership in the ASEAN Regional Forum ensued with many of its members entering into bilateral agreements on defence cooperation. ASEAN’s (and later Japan’s) geopolitical expediency made New Delhi a key factor in the emerging regional power balance. A discussion of these developments was necessary to provide the backdrop to the evolution of the LEP and its relative success in the security area.

In the East Asian context, economics has always been at the heart of regional political dynamics, but this aspect of India’s relations is not adequately dealt with within a comparative framework. The fact that South Korea’s trade with the ASEAN was double that its trade with India or that China’s trade with ASEAN was more than seven times India’s in 2018 shows where India stands.

The authors offer no systematic or detailed analysis of the defence cooperation aspect either, where India has been relatively more successful in engaging East Asia. They try to explicate the nuanced difference between the LEP and Act East Policy, but overstate the role of the North East – without distinguishing between the government’s political rhetoric and ground realities. The North East-Myanmar border trade, for instance, never exceeded $50 million and is unlikely to grow dramatically even after the Trilateral Highway is completed as the region does not have a critical market; neither does it have a manufacturing base nor vast natural resources. It, therefore, has serious limitations. Instead, problems related to other connectivity issues needed enumeration.

Also, the authors may have been more successful had they kept their purview to South East Asia rather than superficially dealing with China, Japan and South Korea. They also sacrifice insight and critical assessment of the government’s actions for a bland narration of them. The quotations that pepper the book are quite often lengthy and unnecessary.

India’s post-Cold War policy initiatives needed to be contextualised. Engagement with East Asia is a two-way process, which is growing. The region is undergoing unprecedented transformation, especially because nowhere else do the interests of the great powers (including India’s) converge – as well as clash – as sharply as they do here. Some discussion of these aspects was needed.

Lastly, care ought to have been taken to ensure that the text is free of typographical and grammatical errors.

Such shortcomings notwithstanding, the book offers a welcome big-picture coverage of India’s engagement with East Asia. Given the paucity of serious literature in this area, this is a useful and timely addition.

India’s Eastward Engagement: From Antiquity to Act East Policy (Sage Publishing, 2019)

Professor G. V. C. Naidu, now retired, was Professor in South East Asian studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. Prior to that, he was Senior Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi. He specialises in Asia Pacific issues, including South East Asian security, Japanese foreign and security policies, political economy of East Asia, and India’s relations with East Asia.

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