Our civilizational neighborhood

Looking East: India’s civilizational neighbourhood

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.

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.

(Views expressed are personal)

Roopen Roy