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Arnab Sen asked: Which countries in Southeast Asia are strategically important for India, and why?

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  • Rahul Mishra replies: India has always considered Southeast Asia as a region of high economic and strategic priority. From Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and K.M. Panikkar’s writings to India’s Maritime Doctrine - all refer to the significance of the region for India. By initiating the Look East Policy (LEP) in 1992, India further reinforced the significance of countries of Southeast Asia in its foreign policy and strategic planning. Without being selective, LEP focuses on all ten-member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). In fact, Phase II of the LEP aims to look even beyond Southeast Asia to strengthen ties with Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand- countries that fall in the wider East Asian region.

    India has also undertaken sub-regional initiatives, such as, the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) and the Mekong Ganga Cooperation (MGC). Both the BIMSTEC and MGC aim to engage the mainland Southeast Asian countries - Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam.

    It would be naïve to grade countries of the region in terms of their strategic importance for India. India’s linkages with Southeast Asia encompass numerous aspects including culture, diaspora, defence cooperation, economic ties and India’s own developmental and security concerns. Each of these factors contributes to the strategic significance of countries in the region for India. For instance, while Vietnam has traditionally been a close friend on defence issues, Singapore is an equally important partner. By virtue of being a maritime neighbour and biggest country in terms of size, population and economy, Indonesia has always been a priority country. India has also maintained cordial relations with Malaysia and the Philippines over the years. Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam are critically important for development and security of India’s north-eastern states. Transport linkages and religious tourism has further enhanced their importance.

    Additionally, India has had multilateral linkages with Southeast Asian countries through a number of institutional mechanisms, such as, the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), East Asia Summit (EAS) and ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting (ADMM) Plus.