The approach of Indian foreign policy towards the neighbouring countries labelled as the South or Southeast Asian nations shows a great deal of proper respect for the traditions and values of those neighbouring lands, reflecting the core sentiments of tolerance and a non-discriminating attitude towards those who choose to differ with New Delhi in opinion or faith as long as our policies are directed to the common goals of retaining peace, fostering reconciliation and promoting a sense of constructive co-operation between India and the member states of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
Back in the year 1945, events took place that marked the start of US-Soviet Union arms race and the Cold War. As India’s foreign policy after independence bolstered its autonomous political, strategic and economic status in the peninsular arch of South Asia, it became apparent that the foreign policies for India needed to be a perfect combination of the idealistic and realistic approaches, to promote a greater degree of international cooperation, individual progress and sense of world community, and naturally to protect Indian interests.
It is important to mention here that although the overall objective of world peace and global co-operation has always been the best interest for the greater number, the political state of affairs initially distinctly diverged into various great power camps. India, being reluctant to be drawn into a brawl not of its choosing, was keen on empowering the whole region lying south of Himalayas so that the weaker nations could work together to withstand any undue malign influence of the non-regional world powers.
This was not seen as an attempt at cultural isolation, but rather to incorporate a distinct version of diplomacy in effectively framing the international co-operation norms for India to secure regional affiliations by utilising the socio-cultural inter-linkages already existing in the region. The Cold War however naturally vitiated India’s outreach to Southeast Asia.
The basic outlines of the Indian foreign initiatives that followed revolved around the ideologies stated in Article 51 of the Indian constitution, which requires the Indian state to endeavour to promote international peace and security; to maintain just and honourable relations between nations; to foster respect for international law and treaty obligations; and to encourage settlement of international disputes by arbitration. This necessitated a copious amount of identity with the diverse cultural and traditional values for the South Asian grouping set up in 1985 known as SAARC, and ASEAN organised in 1967.
In the aftermath of the end of the Cold War in 1990, the Indian ‘Look East’ policy that began in 1994 and envisaged under the blueprint of closer economic, military and diplomatic relations with Southeast Asia, was to maintain the emphasis on the Gandhian principle of non-violence and the Nehruvian philosophy of reconciliation to blunt any lingering previous suspicion and hostility. Ideally, India sought to harness social values, religious beliefs, traditional norms, befriending attitudes and joint collaboration towards the main challenges of the time such as sustainable development, climate change and terrorism.
The latest revamp of India’s foreign policy is the ‘Act East’ policy, brought into effect in 2015 under the current Narendra Modi government. Dubbed as a more outward-looking and energetic policy towards India’s engagement with South and Southeast Asia, the policies initiated appear to have an emphasis to prioritise India’s advantages in terms of attaining a natural leadership role. Nevertheless, India continues, due to its post-independence traditions, to continue to acknowledge and respect the traditional values in other nations and deploy cultural diplomacy to ensure an integrated neighbourhood, where any joint development should not result in a loss or demerit for any of the participating nations, even if it does not equally reap the benefits: this is what is meant by a win-win situation.
India has always been a nation with great potential. A values-based policy will assist it to develop that potential to the full.