Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's three-nation tour of East Asia was much more than a sum of its parts. Since the 1990s, when India was looking to build new alliances in the wake of the Soviet Union's collapse, ‘Look East' has been a mantra with successive governments in New Delhi. But India's economic, political, and strategic relationship with the region was slower to develop than with the United States or Europe. The economic setback the Asian Tigers suffered in the closing years of the 20th century slowed it down further. The last few years have seen Delhi hastening to inject more purpose to its engagement with the East Asian countries. That India is now a major economic power has made this equally meaningful for the countries in the region. The India-ASEAN free trade agreement signed in 2009, awaiting implementation, is limited to goods and excludes services and investment but with a combined market of 1.8 billion people, it holds major potential for both sides. Prime Minister Singh's visit was intended to strengthen relations with ASEAN and the ASEAN-driven East Asia Summit and also to firm up bilateral relations in the region. Aside from marking the conclusion of negotiations on a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement with Japan, the visit clinched a Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement with Malaysia, scheduled to be signed into effect in January 2011. New Delhi is confident that similar agreements with Thailand and Indonesia will follow. The announcement of visa-on-arrival facility for nationals of Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, and Philippines signals that New Delhi is not snobbishly restricting relations to the more prosperous countries in the region.
Another positive outcome of the visit was the meeting between Prime Minister Singh and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao. Considering that some have seen India's energetic diplomacy in East Asia as a gambit to counter China's influence in the region, it was particularly relevant that Premier Wen recalled an earlier statement by the Indian Prime Minister that there is enough space in the world for both countries to realise their development aspirations, and added that there was enough space also for China and India to have cooperation in all areas. The meeting between the two leaders has set the stage for the two countries to work at addressing a trust gap that has developed in recent months. The timing of the East Asia tour, a few days before the arrival of President Barack Obama in India, was coincidental, but it has served to remind the people of India that East and West are equally crucial to the country's external relations. New Delhi can take satisfaction from a week well spent.