East By Southeast: Three Challenges For India’s ‘act East’ Policy

In the spring of 1947, as India prepared for independence, the interim government hosted an unprecedented gathering in New Delhi: the Asian Relations Conference. Jawaharlal Nehru, soon to be India’s first prime minister, delivered a welcome address to over 200 delegates from 30 Asian nations and a handful of observer countries. India, Nehru reminded his audience, was “the natural centre and focal point of the many forces at work in Asia.” The argument was both geographic and cultural: India was “the meeting point of Western and Northern and Eastern and South-East Asia,” and “streams of culture” had both flowed to India and from India to the rest of Asia, influencing “vast numbers of people.

”Seventy years later, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the ASEAN-India Summit in Manila last November witnessed the makings of another unprecedented event: the attendance of all ten ASEAN heads of state as chief guests at India’s Republic Day parade this week. Like Nehru, in his speech, Modi invoked the history of cultural exchange between India and Southeast Asia, citing the Ramayana as “a living shared heritage” that depicts “the way historically the people of India and ASEAN have been bound together.” He also emphasized ASEAN’s “centrality in the regional security architecture of the Indo-Pacific region,” underlining the importance of geography, which Nehru in 1947 had called “the compelling factor” in India’s relations with Asia. Read More…

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