India’s Look East policy was an effort to develop widespread economic and strategic relations with the countries of Southeast Asia in order to strengthen its position as a regional power and to counterbalance the power of China. The Look East Policy which was introduced in the 1990s focused on improving the relationship between India and the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) countries. The Look East Policy witnessed remarkable gains for 20 years after it was introduced. In 1992 India became a sectoral partner of ASEAN and a dialogue partner and member of the ASEAN Regional Forum in 1996. Bilateral trade expanded in the country and the country grew at unprecedented rates. But this momentum got lost by 2010 and hence the need for a renewed policy mechanism was felt.
Move to the Act East Policy
The Look East policy was transformed into Act East Policy under the leadership of the new NDA government in November 2014.The policy is looking to renew India’s ties with ASEAN as well as increase the country’s involvement and presence beyond the region. It was initiated to not only encourage economic interests of India but also security interests. Around $1 billion have been allocated to enhance connectivity between India and ASEAN countries. This is expected to improve economic ties and reinforce people-to-people as well as cultural ties between India’s and its ASEAN counterparts.
1. Through the policy the focus of the new government is to give importance to the adjoining countries in South Asia, especially, those with whom there are no conflicts regarding security, and to bring a shift in the Indian Foreign Policy.
2. Give special focus to least-developed nations of Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar and Vietnam.
1. It makes the North east an essential component of India’s foreign policy. The region will be the foremost beneficiary and most important performer in the policy.
2. It recognizes both the economic and geo-political power of the South East Asian countries.
3. The role of infrastructure development, interlinking markets between the countries and increasing trade is given great deal of emphasis in the policy.
1. Even though India wants to increase its presence and engagement with other parts of Asia no clear framework has yet been designed to carry forward this interaction.
2. India is engaged in the Trans-Asian railway project but the growth of the project has been quite dismal due to the frail political resolve of the parties involved and differences with regards to the alignment of the railway network between the countries that are involved in this project. In the absence of proper cross-border connectivity the North-eastern states of India will have a hard time in maximising the benefits they can derive from the implementation of the Act East Policy.
Achievements of the policy at National and International level:
Under the regime of the current government various agreements with Myanmar have been signed which aim to not only develop a smooth trading pattern with Myanmar but also curb the regional insurgencies. The focus is to further develop the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway and Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Project. The trade between India-Myanmar has increased gradually over the past few decades, from Rs 10 billion in 1997–98 to Rs130 billion in the year 2013–14. But these gains are completely a result of sea trade as there is an absence of proper road and rail link between the two countries. Myanmar’s border trade with India has declined since 1990s from $72 million in late 1990s to around $40 million in the second half of 2000s.
West Bengal is likely to derive the majority of the benefits from this policy. The Kaladan Multi-modal Transport Project aims to connect Kolkata with Sittwe port in Myanmar and then going beyond to Lashio via Kaladan river. The project offers a great chance to India and other ASEAN countries to improve their relations
Under the Act East Policy, Singapore is the first ASEAN country which has developed a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) with India. The two countries signed a Defence Cooperation Agreement (DCA) under which it was decided to have a regular interaction between the Defence Ministers and to increase bilateral engagements between the armed forces. Its main focus is on increasing marine security and shielding the autonomy of navigation in the Indian Ocean and the Asia-Pacific, which includes the South China Sea. It was also agreed upon to fortify maritime safety cooperation and giving specific attention to maritime domain awareness. Vital steps have been taken like India has sanctioned an International Liaison Officer to the Changi Regional HADR (Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief) Coordination Centre. In July 2015, navies of the two countries signed a technical contract on white shipping information sharing. This contract was seen as a means to trade real-time knowledge about the movement of cargo ships between Singapore’s Information Fusion Centre and India’s Directorate of Net Centric Operations. Both countries also decided to investigate other regions of cooperation with regards to HADR.
Bangladesh has now been incorporated in India’s Act East policy which has enhanced the bilateral ties between the two countries. An example of this is the triumphant closing of the Land boundary agreement in June 2015. Also countries like Fiji and 13 small island countries of Oceania which are located in the Far East have also been included in the policy. In this regards the Forum for India-Pacific Islands Countries was established in November 2014
The global commons mainly assign the autonomy of navigation, cybersecurity and space in Asia. The protection of these global commons is seen as a major objective in the Act East policy. There has been a convergence between India’s ‘Act East’ policy and its renewed partnership with the US which can clearly be seen through ‘U.S.-India Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region’ which is an official document between US and India released in January 2015 The aim of the document is to encourage peace, prosperity and stability in the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean area.
Under the Act East policy India’s interest in strengthening multilateral cooperation between India and the regional and extra-regional powers in the Bay of Bengal has escalated. India has decided to host Force 18 which is a multinational field training exercise developed by the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting (ADMM) Plus forum
What lies ahead?
The emphasis on reinforcing India’s partnership with the ASEAN countries should continue.
The Act East Policy should keep making an effort to enhance connectivity of India with the ASEAN countries, especially connectivity between Northeast India and Myanmar. Projects in this respect like the Trilateral Highway and Kaladan Multi-modal Trade Transit Project etc aim to not only enhance collective economic productivity but also encourage peace and prosperity in the North-eastern area.
The increasing presence of Chinese navy in the Indian Ocean has been a cause of concern for India. As a result India is getting more engaged in the safety discourse in East Asia particularly South China Sea. Taking this into account the Act East policy can be considered as an effort to strengthen India’s strategic position in response to China’s increasing marine aspirations.