Peer reviewed analysis from world leading experts

India's role in East Asia: lessons from cultural and historical linkages

Reading Time: 2 mins

In Brief

Indian policy makers have a key opportunity to revive and build on India’s historical and cultural legacy in Asia without appearing to be seeking hegemony or trumpeting a chauvinist vision.

In December 2005, the East Asia Summit (EAS) was launched in Kuala Lumpur, with leaders of 10 ASEAN countries, Japan, China, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand besides India. India’s presence in the EAS signals not only a victory for New Delhi’s ‘Look East’ policy but also an implicit ‘Look West’ policy on the part of India’s neighbors to the east. This convergence represents a major economic opportunity for India and represents a long-term strategic shift in regional order.

Skeptics wonder why India claims membership in an ‘East Asian’ gathering.


  • A
  • A
  • A


  • A
  • A
  • A

A better question is, ‘What took India (and its eastern neighbors) so long?’ Answers to that question could arguably begin with the spread of Islam, the decline of Hindu-Buddhist kingdoms in Southeast Asia, repeated invasions of India from the northwest culminating in the Mughal conquest, and the Hindu dictum (found in 13th-century law digests) that crossing the ‘dark water’ would cause upper-class Hindus to lose caste. This combination could have been overcome, but what followed was worse.

The twentieth century nurtured a thicket of barriers between India and its eastern neighbors: World War I, the Great Depression, protectionism, the Pacific War, war with China, the Cold War, and 50 years of inward-looking economic policies adopted in the name of socialism. Starting in 1947, India gradually slipped into economic self-exile and lingered there until the ‘Look East’ policy was articulated in 1991. By that time India’s share of world trade was lower than it was at the time of independence half a century earlier.

All of these barriers dividing India from East Asia have melted away, liberating the forces of growth. But does that justify Indian membership in ‘East Asia?’

Here, I argue that for historical, cultural, political as well as for substantial economic reasons India belongs at the East Asian table. It is time to ‘re-centre’ our notions of Asia so that maps and other geographic concepts reflect India’s resurgent links with eastern neighbors. India’s political role in the Asian integration movement underscores this need.

Dr. Ellen L. Frost is a Visiting Fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics and an Adjunct Research Fellow at the National Defense University. Her latest book is Asia’s New Regionalism (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers; New Delhi: Viva Books; and Singapore: National University of Singapore Press, 2008).

A longer version of this paper originally appeared in RIS‘ Discussion Paper series.

Comments are closed.

Support Quality Analysis

The East Asia Forum office is based in Australia and EAF acknowledges the First Peoples of this land — in Canberra the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people — and recognises their continuous connection to culture, community and Country.

Article printed from East Asia Forum (

Copyright ©2024 East Asia Forum. All rights reserved.