Why India is switching from a Look East to an Act East policy
As a follow-up to India’s Look East Policy introduced in the early 1990s, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made “Act East” a launch pad for his government’s more focused engagement with the East Asia. Earlier, the Look East Policy concentrated on the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and Japan, but it was realized later that India’s outreach to the East could not be confined to Asean and Japan, nor only in the economic sphere.
Consequently, the Modi government decided to put more emphasis on improving India’s relations with Asean and the other East Asian countries by enlarging the core interests of the region to include the immediate requirements of national and regional security. Thus the Look East and Act East policies highlight India’s military, political and economic interests along with those of regional partners in the East.
Unfortunately, India’s Act East policy is being labelled as the old Look East wine put in a new bottle. The regional actors consider India a relatively peripheral player compared with the United States, China and Japan. Obviously these factors have forcefully given thrust to the framing of the “Modi Doctrine”, which emphasizes the socio-economic resurgence of the East, as well as that of India, with a view to arousing confidence in New Delhi as a genuine regional power and a responsible provider of security.
The Modi Doctrine emphasizes enlarging an earlier Indian mindset confined to South Asia to include the entire East, and spreading to West Asia and Africa. In fact, the Indian Ocean Rim is a strategic link from the Strait of Hormuz to the Strait of Malacca, making it a highly volatile maritime zone. Modi very well understands that India and the Indian Ocean are appropriate halfway points between West and Southeast Asia.
Consolidating India’s maritime strategy and strengthening security in such a vast area requires an ambitious geo-strategic and economic goal as well as an institutional framework for creating an effective mechanism for the economic integration of the wider South Asian region linking India with the Asean economies. Such economic integration will encompass time-bound connectivity infrastructure projects like China’s Belt and Road Initiative, production network linkages facilitated by foreign direct investment, and the integration of energy and electricity infrastructures.
Notwithstanding these prospects, there are several challenges that need immediate attention. Mounting tensions in the Asia-Pacific region due to China’s hegemonic and aggressive assertions have prompted India to coordinate with super and major powers and also other regional members.
Unfortunately bilateral relations between Myanmar and Bangladesh suffer from bitter acrimony due to the Rohingya issue in Rakhine state. Similarly India needs to become more proactive to resolve the Teesta River water-sharing issue with Bangladesh, since both are working together in BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) as well as the BBIN (Bhutan, Bangladesh, India and Nepal) corridor. The India-Bangladesh cooperation referred to as the BCIM (Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar) corridor is an important forum of furthering relevant regional cooperation initiatives.
Malaysia is another country to which India reached out first when it launched its Look East Policy in the 1990s. The Malaysian prime minister has put special emphasis on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) as a free-trade arrangement for this region with the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) coming to an end.
During the recent past, Australia-India ties have strengthened significantly because of the China factor. Both countries have stated their recognition of the importance of freedom of navigation and overflight and unimpeded lawful commerce in accordance with international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Thus India’s Indo-Pacific role is quite clear in the Indian Ocean Rim, which is aimed at evolving a culture of self-confidence and benign assertion.
But India must continue forging closer economic integration and greater connectivity with Southeast Asia, as that would provide Asean states the means to reduce their over-dependence on China. Modi may have to concentrate on India’s long-neglected maritime imperatives as well as to think of India’s strategic future.
Further, Modi needs to concentrate on safeguarding core Indian interests backed by a more assertive and credible military/maritime power. He envisages that India must also expand its diplomatic, economic and military relations with all powers while pursuing its onward march.
Indeed, vikas-vaad (developmentalism) and vistar-vaad (expansionism) as well as ahimsa (the principle of non-violence) and non-alignment are the driving forces behind Modi’s unfolding vision of India’s peaceful ascent in the world. Indeed, if the Modi Doctrine persists, then about a quarter-century of “looking east” is destined to be substituted by the much required policy of “acting east”.
Thus all these developments have prompted India to revitalize its role in the East as a promoter of economies and also as an effective provider of security. India’s outreach to the East has witnessed a significant transformation that does not depend solely on one or two countries or even Asean. In fact, India needs to pay greater attention to free-trade agreements, dubbed Phase II of India’s “Look East Policy” by former external affairs minister Yashwant Sinha in the second India-Asean Business Summit in 2003.
Thus the Act East Policy has a very strong and effective agenda that can ensure peace and progress in the entire East and also the whole world in the true spirit of vasudhaiv kutumbkam – “the world is one family”.