Over a decade ago, PV Narasimha Rao had postulated a “look east” policy for India. In view of the dynamism of the Asian economies in the early 1990s, it made sense to take advantage of the opportunities that these countries provided to expand Indian exports as also to diversify them away from excessive dependence on the US and Europe. While falling short of a big bang process of integration, Indian trade has veered gradually towards the Asian region over the past several years. This is manifest in both volumes and, more prominently, the emergence of a number of trade and co-operation agreements that India has signed with countries in the region. After China entered the World Trade Organisation, bilateral trade with it has grown quite significantly, notwithstanding the absence of any bilateral agreement between the two. Parallel to this, bilateral agreements with Thailand and Singapore have already been signed and an agreement with the Asean group, which was initiated in 2004, is in the final stages of negotiation. Although no formal assessment of the strategy has been done, today’s global environment provides an opportunity to take a fresh look at the significance of the strategy.
A striking change is visible in relative bargaining positions. India initially approached the rest of the region as a self-admitted laggard in the development process, eager to take advantage of the success of the other countries. Over the past few years, as the Indian economy became the toast of global investors and the huge potential of its domestic market edged closer to realization, the pendulum shifted and other countries became increasingly interested in accessing Indian consumers. This shift in the balance has provided India with room to manoeuvre, and the country’s negotiators will undoubtedly try to exploit this. However, the expansion of trade within Asia is inevitably going to be constrained by the fact that many countries, particularly the fastest-growing ones, have similar resource endowments. They are certainly competitive in labour-intensive products as far as American and European consumers are concerned, and will find it rather more difficult to sell these goods in each other’s markets.
To go beyond mere diversification and act as a genuine engine of growth, Asian trade will have to be driven by forces similar to those in Europe. Gains can come from increasing efficiencies as production re-locates across borders to take advantage of scale economies and other factors. If this is going to be the primary source of benefits from greater integration, it implies that a bilateral or piecemeal approach to agreements will not work beyond a point. A more comprehensive regional framework needs to be put in place. Manmohan Singh’s recent references to an Asian economic community reflect this recognition. If this is indeed the way to go, India’s emergence as a regional economic power gives it the clout to persuade its neighbours to become more ambitious in pursuit of a broader and more encompassing regional arrangement. The bottom line is that, after the dust has settled, Asia is going to remain the fastest growing region in the world and for the countries in it, not to take advantage of their neighbours’ markets would be a significant lost opportunity. Developing a simple, mutually beneficial regional mechanism should become a priority for the neighbourhood.