Peer reviewed analysis from world leading experts

India should continue to look East

Reading Time: 4 mins

In Brief

India did not look to the East for a long time. The best and brightest from India travelled to the West for learning and living and Indian business was far more comfortable looking West even during the days of tight control. Oddly enough, the US and Europe remained India’s largest trade partners, even during the committed years of rupee-rouble trade between India and the erstwhile Soviet Union. While the Cold War did not put an end to India’s economic ties with the West, despite expectations to the contrary, it saw India neglecting the East for a major part of the last century.

India’s neglect in favour of the West hurt its own economy more than the Eastern Asian region.


  • A
  • A
  • A


  • A
  • A
  • A

India missed being a beneficiary of the Asian miracle. A more pragmatic political perception resulting in a similarly pragmatic economic vision would have seen India connecting to the Asian ‘Tigers’ much earlier than it actually did. Unfortunately, India never realised that the ‘goose’ can actually spread its wings wide and deep into other parts of Asia. As a result, it remained a curious onlooker of the Asian miracle without aspiring to figure in or on an extended periphery.

Strategic analysts suggest that India’s Look East policy of 1992 (the much-delayed foreign policy overture of connecting to the East) was a result of the new dynamics that unfolded after the Cold War. But like most of the radical policies in today’s Indian economy, this policy also partly owes its origin to the balance of payments crisis in 1991. Had foreign exchange reserves not dipped to the levels where they could barely finance a fortnight’s imports, India would not have resorted to desperate measures. The crisis and the ground that it provided for opening up the economy left India with little option other than responding positively to globalisation. This meant accessing new markets. There was no other region of the world that had more vibrant markets than those in India’s East.

The policy has certainly helped as far as economic gains are concerned. The Asian region is now India’s largest trade partner. India’s economic exchanges with Southeast Asia as well as the more mature economies of Northeast Asia have been facilitated by the Look East policy. Indeed, had these regions not figured prominently on India’s contemporary trade profile then its trade earnings would have been much more severely affected by the global economic downturn. With export markets in the West having collapsed in a manner rarely witnessed before, Asian markets have helped Indian exports return to a positive growth trajectory.

There are several reasons for India to expand and promote relations with its neighbours in East Asia. The first of these is, undoubtedly, economics. All forecasts and projections indicate that the Asian region will remain the most vibrant segment of the world economy in the medium term. Thus, from the vantage point of obtaining higher economic gains, India should continue to expand its economic networks with the East. There should be greater emphasis on formal trade pacts covering goods, services, technology, cross-border investments and the movement of people. However, the scope for obtaining greater economic gains will remain restricted, unless facilitating domestic measures are adopted. These include easier visa regimes, improved trade documentation procedures, and simpler and standardised customs norms.

The second reason concerns a stable Asian region. In the past, India has suffered from acrimonious relations with its neighbours, but by connecting firmly to the Asia-Pacific community, it can become part of a larger Asian community. Such inclusion is bound to reduce potential neighbourly frictions. Indeed, with Asia gradually acquiring a pan-integration dimension, it would be futile (and harmful) for India to stay out of the process. Asian integration is being driven by shared values and concerns. These are as much India’s as they are of the rest of the region.

The final reason for which India should strengthen its Look East policy is strategic. The time has come for India to realise that it can be a much more influential player in global affairs. It should start playing a role in East Asia that is commensurate with its new identity. By aggressively pursuing the Look East policy through wider objectives and a greater scope, India should aspire to become a more significant strategic entity in its East.

It is only natural that India should adopt a firmer and more meaningful Look East policy in order to benefit from a growing East Asia.

Amitendu Palit is Head (Development & Programmes) & Visiting Research Fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS) at the National University of Singapore. He was earlier with ICRIER, New Delhi and the Ministry of Finance, India.

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.