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Our civilizational neighborhood

Looking East: India’s civilizational neighbourhood



Roopen Roy

(Views expressed are personal)



For India, looking East is making more sense with  every passing day. Asia’s economic growth and India’s trade ties with Asian   countries are critical now to India’s economic progress. Let us look at the  magnitude of trade with Asian nations.

Our  bi-lateral trade with China will surpass  $70 billion this fiscal year. The target is  to exceed $100 billion by 2015.  Montek  Singh Ahluwalia, the Deputy Chairman of our Planning Commission, will head a high-level team to Beijing later this month for the first India-China Strategic Economic  Dialogue. The decision to establish the dialogue, on the lines similar to the one China has with USA, was taken during the talks in Delhi between Indian  Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh and his visiting Chinese counterpart Wen Jiabao in December last year. 

The trade with Japan is growing as well. On August1, 2011, India and Japan executed a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA), aiming to provide greater access to each other's markets. The  aim is to double the bilateral trade from $12.6 billion to $ 25 billion by2014. The Indo-Korean bilateral trade is rapidly growing as well. The current run rateis $11.9 billion and the figure is expected to ratchet up to $24 billion by  2014.  The ASEAN region is becoming an  important component of our trade. It touched $41 billion last year and is expected  to cross $70 billion in 2014. Simply for context, our bi-lateral trade with the US is around $45 billion. Of course, bi-lateral trade alone does not capture the intensity of business relationships.  We need to look at other key indicators like the two-wayflow of Foreign Direct Investments(FDI), the technology links, the quality and depth of trade and the mutual participation in capital markets. The US-India relationship is more strategic than may appear from the single metric of bi-lateral trade measured in billions of dollars. However, what leaps out from the data presented is the increasing importance of India’s economic ties with  Asia  and the rapidly changing geographic mix of India’s trade and commerce.

 Dr. Manmohan Singh speaking on the occasion of the Golden Jubilee of the Indian Institute of Management,Calcutta on August 22, 2011 outlined his vision of building on India’s identity as an Asian country and on her great civilizational neighborhood and heritage.

“One of the greatest Indians who re-discoveredIndia's Asian identity and Asia's links with India,” he said, “ was  Gurudev  Rabindranath Tagore, the first Asian Nobel Laureateand a proud son of Bengal and India. His travels to the East helped India  reconnect with its civilizational neighborhood. The time has come to build on this great civilizational heritage and to pool all our wisdom, knowledge andexperiences  to scale new heights ofhuman endeavor and achievement in the service of the people of West Bengal andIndia as a whole.” 

The bi-lateral trade in the sub-continent is not very small either. Our trade with Bangladesh is around $ 4 billion, with Nepal $3.4 billion and with Bhutan $1.2billion. If we add the multi-lateral trade between  the four countries the figure will be much higher. Bangladesh’s High Commissioner  to India Mr. Tariq Karim has publicly mooted a sub-regional cooperation, “We want to cash in on the relationship between these four nations… Trade will be in goods, services and in energy resources.” Bangladesh wants a sub-regional pact for road and rail connectivity,electric grid and water resources management with India, Nepal and Bhutan.

Dr. Mammohan Singh is leading a high-powered Indian  delegation to Dhaka during 6th and 7th September 2011 where he is expected to  sign some historic agreements which will deepen our historic friendship, ease our trade and enhance our cultural and economic bonds.  

Both nations picked a Tagore song as their national anthem. Indians fought alongside the freedom fighters of  Bangladesh for their emancipation and for the preservation of their cultural and lingual identity. It is only fitting that we bring down our barriers to trade and work collectively for mutual economic progress and human development.

Tagore was a great visionary. Way back in April, 1937he established  the Cheena Bhavana(The  Hall of Chinese Studies) as part of  Visva-Bharati -the university that he had founded. Dr. Singh is the current Chancellor of this University. Tagore inaugurated the Hall of Chinese Studies with the following words “Our friends are here from China with their gift of friendship and co-operation. The Hall which is to beopened today will serve both as the nucleus and as a symbol of that largerunderstanding that is to grow with time. Here students and scholars will come  from China and live as part of ourselves, sharing our life and letting us share theirs, and by offering their labours in a common cause, help in slowly re-building that great course of fruitful contact between our peoples, that has been interrupted for ten centuries.” The University also has a center forJapanese Studies called the Nippon Bhavana  (The Hall of Japanese Studies).It is time that  we expanded  the building blocks already in place in Visva-Bharati and set up similar centers of learning to improve cultural and trade links with our “civilizational neighbours”.

It is time--- is it not---  that Indian companies develop a “Look East”strategy to take advantage of the blistering pace of economic growth taking place in our neighborhood. And civilizational links and cultural ties can be the cornerstone for building enhanced regional trade and cooperation.