January 5, 2018

Look East Policy: A Post-Independence Construct

India-ASEAN relations today are more strategic than economic in character. India  today eyes ASEAN as a major East Asian entity vital to promote Indian geopolitical interests in the region. The twenty-five years of India’s engagement with ASEAN via thirty dialogue mechanisms has undoubtedly strengthened the mutual attachment. The strategic aspect of India’s ASEAN policy became vivid further under the Act East Policy of the Narendra Modi government which intended to accelerate ‘across-the-board engagement between the two growth poles of Asia’.1 Year 2017 marks the 25th anniversary of India-ASEAN Dialogue Partnership which was initiated in 1992 when the decision was taken to set up a Sectoral Dialogue Partnership between ASEAN and India at the 4th ASEAN Summit in Singapore. In his congratulatory message to the ASEAN Chair Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippine President, Prime Minister Narendra Modi termed Act East Policy as the ‘reflection of the importance we attach to our strategic partnership with ASEAN’.2 Responding to Prime Minister Modi’s message President Duterte noted that ASEAN-India relations have contributed to the maintenance of peace, stability and prosperity in the region.3 Tranquil Southeast Asia is beneficial for India whose trade with ASEAN was $71 billion in the 2016-17 financial year, which accounts for 10.85% of India’s global trade.4 Therefore, security of land and sea route is vital for India for which collaboration with the ASEAN countries is necessary. Today, ASEAN is an important strategic ally of India in East Asia where India wants to expand her footprint as was evident from the statement of former Indian Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh: “Our strategic footprint covers the region bounded by Horn of Africa, West Asia, Central Asia, South-East Asia and beyond.”5

In the context of today’s India-ASEAN strategic relations, it will be interesting to introspect whether the strategic aspect of India’s Act East Policy is a later phenomenon or it has its roots in the past. When did independent India look east? How old is India’s strategic considerations vis-à-vis Southeast Asia? In this case it is pertinent to analyse Jawaharlal Nehru’s Southeast Asia policy.

Nehru Looking East

Contrary to the general perception, India looked (and acted) east immediately after independence.  The centrality of India in the Southeast Asian affairs in the eyes of Nehru is best reflected in his speech at the Constituent Assembly on 8th March, 1949 where he said, “If you have to consider any question concerning South-East Asia, you cannot do so without India.”6

The prime concern of Nehru in Southeast Asia was the communist militancy which was the most common problem in all the decolonized states of Asia during that time, including India. The post-war Southeast Asia was experiencing strong anti-imperialist liberation struggle which got intertwined with the communist revolutionary fervor targeting the nationalist factions within the countries. Nehru disapproved this militancy both in India and Southeast Asia saying, “There are communists, who quite apart from their communism, are at present engaged in creating as much trouble as possible not only in India but much more so in Burma, Malaya etc….”7 Not only Nehru, even his deputy and Home Minister Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel expressed concern with the communist extremist militancy in post war Southeast Asia. In his address to the nation on 15th August 1947, Sardar Patel said, “The condition in Malaya, Indo-China and Burma was disappointing…If the undesirable elements in the country were not put down with a firm hand immediately, they were sure to create the same problem as they found existing in some other Asiatic countries.”8

The two prime objectives of India’s Southeast Asia policy post 1947 have been: first, to liquidate colonialism and second, to thwart any major or medium power domination of the region in the name of filling the vacuum which Nehru termed as cloak for imperialism.9 Nehru believed that the continuation of the colonial rule in Southeast Asia would only promote communist rebellion: “If colonialism continues anywhere in South-East Asia, the natural result will be a growth of communism.”10 In an interview with Earnest K. Lindley, when the interviewer asked Nehru whether the communists’ gains in ‘Burma, Malaya and other areas close to India’ would be a concern for Nehru, the Indian Prime Minister answered in affirmative.11 Both Nehru and Patel, during their visits to Southeast Asia, had condemned communists for their ‘extra territorial character’ and confirmed that the victory of communists in Burma and Malaya would be a matter of concern for Indian government. Nehru even deplored the communists for turning Southeast Asia into ‘one of the great danger spots of the world’ and termed their expansionist and interference policy as ‘danger to peace and freedom’.12

Nehru saw instability arising from the communist rebellion in the non-communist Southeast Asian states as a threat, and so was active in thwarting the scenario from worsening further. In a way Nehru saved entire Southeast Asia from turning communist. This was best witnessed in Nehru’s activeness in liberating Indonesia from Dutch rule for which he even convened a conference in New Delhi in 1949 whose resolution was instrumental in the liberation process. Besides, Indonesia was also a major rice supplier to India coping with severe food crisis in the post war years and thus stable non-communist regime in Indonesia was helpful for Nehru’s India. His Malaya policy was apparently contradictory to his anti-imperialist stance since Nehru preferred the British rule there to continue for longer period in order to suppress communist rebellion and help to handle the Indian migrant affairs in Malaya. Besides, he disapproved of the guerrilla tactic of the Malayan communists as ‘terrorist acts’.13

Burma had occupied a very important part of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s neighbourhood policy, especially in the context of the Indian migrants there who were soon to become the victims of ultra-nationalist policy of the government there as also because of its strategic importance. He was aware of the importance to have a friendly government in Burma, and thus chose to keep a low profile over the anti-Indian policies of the government there. Although expressing displeasure with the Land Acquisition Act 1948 saying that it hits ‘Indian interests in land hard’14, he opined, “Although the attitude of the Burmese Government has been unyielding thus far, we must recognise that they are facing a most difficult situation in their own country. There is rebellion and disorder and they cannot easily take any step which may weaken their position with the general public.”15 Clearly he was not inclined to put the Burmese government in any difficulty internally. Do we find any similarity between this policy with the ongoing Rohingya crisis vis-à-vis Indian policy towards today’s Myanmar?

Traditional China factor

The Statesman (Kolkata edition) published a report on 14th December 2017 with the headline ‘With China on mind, India woos ASEAN nations’. Referring to an invitation extended to the ten ASEAN leaders as chief guests to the Republic Day parade on 26th January 2018 the report read, “Amid growing challenge from China on regional issues, India is pulling out all the stops to accord an unprecedented welcome to leaders of ten ASEAN nations who will be chief guests at the Republic Day parade on 26th January.”16 There is almost unanimous conclusion among the scholars that China is a major factor in India’s current Southeast Asia policy. Eminent scholar S.D. Muni opined that in many subtle and explicit ways India’s Look East Policy has been driven by China’s rise.17 It is opined that China factor played a role behind the India-Southeast Asia collaboration in the security arena in the post Cold War years.18 But is this China factor a post Cold War phenomenon?

Jawaharlal Nehru said in 1952, “Never forget that the basic challenge in Southeast Asia is between India and China. That challenge runs along the spine of Asia.”19 Michael Brecher wrote about Indian and Chinese role in Southeast Asia, “As the two most populous and potentially most powerful states in Asia, they are inevitable rivals for influence in the vast belt of ‘uncommitted’ countries of South-east Asia.”20 Nehru was aware of the challenge emanating from the newly founded People’s Republic of China (PRC). The new Chinese leadership in Beijing had articulated their intention to promote communist movement in Southeast as well as South Asia. Chinese communist leader Liu Shao Chi identified non-communist countries of South and Southeast Asia, India, Burma, the Philippines and Indonesia as ‘semi-colonies’ which were to be ‘freed from the stranglehold of western imperialism’.21 When asked whether post revolution China would turn eyes to Southeast Asia, Nehru evaded direct answer saying that the Chinese were busy with their own problems now and therefore would not do it but he did refer to long perspective of history saying, “it is difficult to say what might happen in future – what a powerful nation may do to develop expansionist tendencies.” New China was certainly a challenge to India’s, or more precisely, Nehru’s leadership aspiration in Southeast Asia. Nehru considered India as the ‘natural leader of Southeast Asia,’22 and was apprehensive regarding the impact of communist triumph in China. He wrote on 6th December 1948, “The victory and consolidation of Chinese Communists is going to have a far reaching results all over South East Asia and ultimately in the world.”23

Since the foundation of Communist China in 1949, India’s external policy has been China oriented, especially in respect of spread of communism in Southeast Asia.24However, Nehru never wanted any direct confrontation with the giant Asian neighbour until the 1962 tragedy occurred. Nehru’s prime objective in Southeast Asia vis-à-vis China was to minimise the impact of the Asian giant especially in the context of communist influence in the region. Nehru’s strategy in Southeast Asia was to enthrone non-communist regimes wherever feasible like Indonesia, Malaya and Burma. Like today’s India, Nehru’s India was also cautious not to push the then Burma to the lap of China given her strategic location bordering China and hostile East Pakistan (today’s Bangladesh), contiguous to insurgency-hit northeast. Thus Nehru wanted an India-friendly regime in Burma which he found in U Nu. Nehru expressed his suspicion about China to Burmese premier U Nu in the following words, “Obviously we cannot be dead sure what China may do in the future.25

Nehru’s main challenge was in Indochina, the only crisis in Southeast Asia that Jawaharlal Nehru did not see being resolved during his lifetime. The Indochina affair put his policy towards communist growth in Southeast Asia and communist China to a litmus test. With camp politics casting shadow over Indochina, Nehru exercised his Panchsheel policy. Nehru extracted Chinese assurance of peaceful co-existence in the joint communiqué during the visit of Chinese premier Chou En-lai to India in 1954 to be applied in resolution of Indochina conflict. This was to commit China to non-interference in Southeast Asia while China found it helpful firstly to resist American presence in her southern borders while resisting India from joining any future regional defence organization.26This strategy was also to assure kingdoms like Cambodia and Laos planning to opt for either camp amidst Vietnam War. Nehru wanted Indochina to stay away from Cold War politics which might increase American presence activating the Chinese. However, Nehru’s Panchsheel strategy failed eventually while the growing rapport between North Vietnam and China forced India to veer away from neutrality and incline towards pro-US South Vietnam in the International Control Commission founded to resolve the crisis. This was the result of the growing deterioration of the India-China relations since 1959 over border issue. While between 1954 and 1959 India voted for Hanoi in 72 per cent of her decisions, since 1959 India ruled against North Vietnam.27

The war of 1962 had a deep and permanent impact on India’s Southeast Asia policy. Post 1962 Southeast Asia policy under Nehru was overtly anti-China in character with Nehru declaring, “There is no non-alignment vis-à-vis China. There is no Panchsheel vis-à-vis China.”28 India now attempted to dissuade Southeast Asia against China. While visiting Thailand in March 1963, Indian Minister of State for External Affairs, Mrs. Lakshmi Menon, said, “The Chinese problem is a common problem. One day it may be your problem in Southeast Asia…”29This is interesting since prior to the war, India cautiously avoided Thailand (and the Philippines) as pro-US countries of Southeast Asia contradicting Nehru’s non-alignment policy. After the war, Nehru ‘discovered’ Thailand in his fresh Southeast Asia policy. Nehru by then realized the futility of his Panchsheel strategy. Not only this, the war itself was an eye-opener for Nehru to see countries like Thailand and Philippines, along with Malaya, siding with India against Chinese aggression while Burma and Indonesia, the countries he invested the most in, opting for neutral policy.


Southeast Asia has traditionally held strategic importance for India. Commenting on strategic importance of Southeast Asia to India, Major Anthony Strachey of the Indian Army compared the region with Nepal and Tibet in 1947 saying like in case of the Himalayan buffers to India, adverse powers in charge of Burma, French Indochina, Siam or East Indies would be detrimental to India.30 The last world war proved this when Japan marched at the gate of British India in the northeast while it occupied Andaman & Nicobar Islands after seizing Southeast Asia. Today’s India is similarly concerned about the growing might of China whose only maritime link to India is via South China Sea. Tranquil Southeast Asia was always beneficial for India both economically as well as strategically. The rice supply from Burma and Indonesia was a big help to India’s food crisis in the early years of independence. For that, stable and friendly regimes were required there for which Nehru worked hard. This was also needed to handle the Indian migrants there. In a way Nehru was in a nation-building mission in Southeast Asia. And there was a latent desire of Nehru to gain India (or him?) the world-wide prestige as he himself admitted in January 1949 in the context of conference on Indonesian independence, “We had recently the conference on Indonesia which has been a great success and which has enhanced the prestige of India all over the world.”.31 Southeast Asian leaders, fighting against communism, also acknowledged Nehru as their guide as was evident from the visit of Burmese and Indonesian leaders to India. Even the outside world acknowledged Nehru as the ‘influential non-communist voice of Asia’.32 Nehru was the bridge between the contending powers interested in post-war Southeast Asia. He never wanted any single power domination in the region and advocated for its tranquility which he found was threatened by South East Asia Treaty Organisation (SEATO) and Indochina crisis. His strategy in Southeast Asia, was to resist communist victory while engaging China in local affairs. The Bandung Conference of 1955 served the purpose well but initiated the downgrading of Nehru’s influence in Southeast Asia as well.

India had a strategy vis-à-vis Southeast Asia under Prime Minister Nehru which continued even after that. Nehru’s India tried to resist Southeast Asia from pursuing camp politics and follow a non-aligned policy based on Panchsheel strategy which was close to the later ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation or the Zone of Peace Freedom and Neutrality (ZOPFAN), 1971 which expressed ASEAN’s desire to keep power tussle outside the region. Presumably, Nehru wanted Southeast Asia to balance between contending powers like China and USA. Today, India acknowledges the centrality of ASEAN in the Asia-Pacific security architecture harmonizing ‘larger interests of the world beyond it’, according to Indian minister Gen. VK Singh.33 The omni-enmeshment strategy of the group embracing all the regional and extra-regional powers, including India, within its expanded fold like ASEAN Regional Forum, East Asia Summit and ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting Plus has put it at the centre of the East Asian geopolitics today. During Nehru’s time Southeast Asia was unable to handle its affairs and India under Nehru was in action to set the house in order. Today, when India-ASEAN relations officially turn twenty-five, we see India more as a partner in the ASEAN led missions in East Asia. Besides, Nehru’s Look/Act East strategy was more diplomatic and non-military in character while today India expands her strategic collaboration through joint exercises and port visits. The only consistency in India’s Southeast Asia policy has been the China factor. The China factor remains equally relevant today as it was during Nehru period. India today is partnering with ASEAN to engage China to contain her, as did Nehru. Later ASEAN policy towards China in post-Cold War years reflected this wisdom.


1  Manish Anand, ‘Act East: India’s ASEAN Journey’, Public Diplomacy, Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, November 10, 2014, http://www.mea.gov.in/in-focus article.htm?24216Act+East+Indias+ ASEAN+Journey (accessed on 12.12.2017)

2  Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India,‘Celebrating 25 Years of ASEAN-India DialoguePartnership’, January 28, 2017, para3,http://mea.gov.in/press releases.htm?dtl/27970Celebrating_25_years_of_ the_ASEANIndia_Dialogue_Partnership (accessed on 12.12.2017)

3  Ibid

4  Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India,‘15th ASEAN-India Summit and 12th East Asia Summit in Manila, the Philippines (November 4, 2017), para6, http://www.mea.gov.in/press-releases.htm?dtl/29102/15th_ASEANIndia_Summit_and_12th_East_Asia_Summit_in_Manila_Philippines_November_14_2017 (accessed on 12.12.2017)

5  Cited in Subhadeep Bhattacharya, Understanding South China Sea Geopolitics, New Delhi, Pentagon Press, 2017, p.214

6  Jawaharlal Nehru, Indian Foreign Policy: Selected Speeches, September 1946-April 1961, New Delhi, The Publication Division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Govt. of India, 1961, p.22

7   Jawaharlal Nehru, Letters to Chief Ministers 1947-64, Vol. 1.(1947-49), New Delhi, Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Fund,  1985,p.143

8 Cited in Subhadeep Bhattacharya, Looking East Since 1947: India’s Southeast Asia Policy, New Delhi, KW Publishers Pvt. Ltd., 2016, p.7

9 V.P. Dutt, India’s Foreign Policy, New Delhi, Vani Educational Books, 1985, p.254

10Jawaharlal Nehru, Letters to Chief Ministers, 1947-1964, Vol 1, op cit, p.222

11S. Gopal, Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru, Second Series, Volume Seven, New Delhi, Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Fund, 1988, p.616

12 Werner Levi, Free India in Asia, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1952,pp.101, 102

13  Nehru’s  cable to V.K. Krishna Menon, July 24, 1948, S. Gopal (ed), Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru, Second Series, Volume Seven, New Delhi, Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Fund, 1988, p.651

14  Jawaharlal Nehru, Letters to Chief Ministers, 1947-1964, Vol 1, op cit, p.235

15 Ibid

16 The Statesman,‘With China on mind, India woos ASEAN nations’, 14.12.2017, p.3

17 S.D. Muni,‘India’s Look East Policy: Strategic Dimension’, ISAS Working Paper, No.121, 1 February, 2011, https://www.files.ethz.ch/isn/126612/ISAS_Working_Paper_121-_Email-_India’s_’look-east’_policy_the_strategic_dimension_01022011145800.pdf  (accessed on 19.08.2017), p.23

18 Balveer Singh, ‘Southeast Asia’s Rising Engagement of India’, Southeast Asia-India Defence Relations in Changing Regional Security Landscape, IDSA, Monograph Series No.4, 2011, p.16

19 Cited in Subhadeep Bhattacharya (2016), op cit, p.6

20 Michael Brecher, Nehru: A Political Biography, New Delhi, Oxford University Press, 2011, p.589

21 D.R. Sardesai,‘India and Southeast Asia’, B.R. Nanda (ed), Indian Foreign Policy: The Nehru Years, Delhi, Vikas Publishing House Pvt Ltd, 1976, p.85

22 Jawaharlal Nehru, Guidelines for the session of the United Nations General Assembly, September 12, 1948, Selected Speeches of Jawaharlal Nehru, Second Series, Volume Seven, 1948,  op cit, p.611

23 Jawaharlal Nehru, Letters to Chief Ministers, Volume 1 (1947-1949), New Delhi, Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Fund, 1985, p.232

24 D.R. Sardesai, India’s Foreign Policy towards Cambodia, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam from 1947-1964, Barkley, California University Press, 1968, p.33

25 Sarvepalli Gopal, Jawaharlal Nehru: A Biography, Volume Two-1947-1956, New Delhi, Oxford University Press, p.190

26 Subhadeep Bhattacharya (2016), op cit, p.20

27 Ibid, pp.21, 22

28 Cited in Asis Kumar Majumdar, Southeast Asia in India’s Foreign Policy: Study of India’s Relations with Southeast Asian Countries from 1962-1982, Calcutta, Noya Prokash, 1982, p.70

29 Cited in ibid, p.72

30 Ton That Thien, op cit, p.67

31 Jawaharlal Nehru, Letters to Chief Ministers, 1947-1964, Vol. 1 (1947-1949) op cit,  p.270, emphasis added

32 The New York Times, 29th August 1950, cited in Karunakar Gupta, Indian Foreign Policy : In Defence of National Interest, Calcutta, The World Press Private Ltd., 1956, p.5

33 The Statesman,‘Asean central to region’s security architecture: India’, 07.08.2017, p.1


(Subhadeep Bhattacharya is a Researcher at Netaji Institute for Asian Studies (NIAS), Kolkata.)

(This article is carried in the print edition of January-February 2018 issue of India Foundation Journal.)


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