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India’s Act East Policy: Objectives, Efficacy and Way Forward ; By Cmde S L Deshmukh

Image Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Article 15/2021

India’s act east policy has paid long-term dividends.

India as a country situated between the Middle East, Central Asia, China, Southeast Asia, and the Indian Ocean has appreciable locational advantages. India can use this to further its strategic goals.  India’s central location in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) allows it to act as a hub of transportation, communication, and trade.  Making effective utilization of its location and projecting its cultural and economic power in neighboring regions, India has been trying to improve its security, prestige, and overall influence in Asia.  However, due to somewhat under-punching of its prowess, India has allowed itself to be overshadowed by other powers-especially China (Pillalamarri, 2014).

Today India has been cornered by China through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CEPC), Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RECP), and its assertiveness in IOR. India realizing the colossal potential of this problem has acted by taking initiatives like Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD), The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), Look East Policy (LEP), and Act East Policy (AEP), etc. This article will basically focus on AEP-its objectives, Efficacy, and way forward.

Act East Policy

 The ‘Act East’ policy has been one of the major diplomatic initiatives of India, conceived mainly for promoting economic, strategic and cultural relations with the vast Asia-Pacific region. India’s long-needed eastward drive which took shape in the early 1990s has underscored the importance of this region in its dynamically evolving international relations. It is important to note that ‘Act East’ and its previous version ‘Look East’ are not different initiatives, but are two sides of the same coin. They represent two different, but continuing phases of India’s evolving policy towards the Asia-Pacific region.

At the time of launching the ‘Look East; policy in 1991, India’s economic strength, global status and external environment were not what they are now. At that time India was going through a somewhat difficult transition from a state-controlled economic regime to a more liberalised one. It took many years for the country to get adjusted to the newly emerging economic environment.

In contrast, while launching the Act East policy, in 2014, India’s economy was relatively robust and its global profile was higher than it was in the decades prior. AEP gave a new thrust to invigorate economic, strategic and diplomatic relationships with countries that shared common concerns with India on China’s growing economic and military strength and its implications for the evolving situation in the Indo-Pacific region (Lynch III and Przystup, 2017)

Objectives

The Look East policy was originally intended as an economic strategy to boost India’s trade and investment relations with the Southeast Asian region. As a natural progression LEP expanded its geographical reach, over the years, to include Japan, South Korea and Australia. In addition to the economic dimension, it also assumed significant strategic and political dimensions in the course of time. LEP’s transformation (in 2014) into the ‘Act East’ policy (AEP) gave the strategic factor a greater salience. Prime Minister Modi’s articulation of India’s vision for the region in one word,-SAGAR -which stands for ‘Security and Growth for All in the Region’ has emphasized its strategic importance.

India’s strategic interests in the region are multifaceted. India is thus greatly concerned with strategic uncertainties in the region, following the perceptible decline in US influence and the rapid and overarching rise of China, which has the potential to destabilize the power equation in the Indo-Pacific region.

India is, therefore, keen on contributing in collaboration with other like-minded countries to the evolving new regional order, which needs to be open, rules-based, and free from the influence of any single hegemon. Such an order must believe in sovereignty and territorial integrity and equality of all nations, irrespective of size and strength.  Prime Minister Modi’s statement, in the 2018 Shanghai Dialogue that: “These rules and norms should be based on the consent of all, not on the power of the few. This must be based on faith in dialogue and not on the dependence on force” conveys the essence of India’s vision.

Further, India as a country dependent on seaborne trade for its sustenance fully recognises the inherent rights of all countries to freedom of navigation, overflight, and unimpeded commerce in open seas. Maritime security is an important aspect of India’s Act East policy. India also believes that no country should use force as a means of settling disputes.

Additionally, India’s Act  East policy supports connectivity programmes for promoting regional cooperation and integration and has a strong synergy with Japan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific and South Korea’s New Southern Policy (Kesavan, 2021).

Efficacy

A pragmatic examination of India’s current relations with ASEAN, Japan, South Korea and Australia would undoubtedly reveal a vast network of India’s expanding multi-lateral relationships.  India which joined the ASEAN in 1992 as a sectoral partner became its full-fledged member in 1994. It is now an active member of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), the East Asian Summit (EAS) and the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting Plus.  India is now an important part of 30 sectoral dialogue mechanisms and seven Ministerial-level interactions in addition to annual summit-level meetings (De, 2018).

The same collaborative feature is seen in India’s relationship with Japan and South Korea—two major pillars in India’s Act East policy.  Ministry of External Affairs of India (MEA, 2019) has rightly pointed out that: “A vast array of institutional mechanisms binds their partnership in such forums like the annual summit, strategic dialogue, defence dialogue, and numerous forums on energy cooperation, counter-terrorism, U.N. reforms, cybersecurity, and maritime cooperation. Further, India and Japan have institutionalised 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue.”

  This later resulted in extending the dialogue beyond the bilateral ambit like:-

  1. Upgrading the trilateral US-Japan- India dialogue to ministerial level.

  2. India’s participation in the quadrilateral meetings with the US, Japan and Australia, particularly since 2017 which has underlined New Delhi’s interest to exchange views on the strategic environment of the Indo-Pacific region.

On the economic front, India’s economic relations with the ASEAN countries have seen a quantum jump in recent years. A conclusion of two in number India and the ASEAN trade agreements, in goods and services, have helped in creating one of the biggest trade areas which account for a market of 1.8 billion people and a combined GDP of about US$3 trillion. It has also helped the inflow of  ASEAN private investments into India in many sectors viz. construction of ports, highways, food processing, shipping, and auto components. In reciprocation, India’s investments in ASEAN have grown considerably in recent years, with Singapore becoming its investment and trading hub.

A similar pattern has been s seen in India’s trade relations with Japan and South Korea. A substantial increase in the investment from Japan into several important sectors including automobile, telecommunications, chemicals & pharmaceuticals and from South Korea in automobile and electronics sectors, has been witnessed (MEA Report, 2019 and Indian Embassy Tokyo Report, 2019).

India’s Act East Policy has also benefitted its long-term vision of developing its North-eastern region (NER) –a vital gateway to Southeast Asia. It is important to note that Japan’s interests in the NER are deeply rooted in history which has helped in reaching a broader bilateral consensus to cooperate for the development of the NE region.

India’s concerted efforts through the AEP have also resulted in forging strategic partnerships with Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Japan, South Korea and Australia. In addition, it has also established close links with the BIMSTEC group of countries and the IOR (Kesavan, 2018a).

Act East Policy- Way Forward

In recent years, the Indian government’s Act East Policy has gone well beyond the focus on economic ties as envisaged by the Look East Policy. It has made progress on many wider fronts, including connectivity and defence collaboration. India needs to build on this success and irreversibly consolidate relations and trade links with ASEAN and beyond

India’s efforts to establish or rejuvenate ties with countries that India had not focused on, through visits by the Prime Minister to Australia in November 2014, a first visit by an Indian prime minister to that country after 28 years and to Fiji another first in 33 years followed by to Mongolia in May 2015-a first ever by an Indian prime minister have paid rich dividends.

India is also legitimately concerned about China’s disputatious claims in the South China Sea. India has unambiguously stated its principled position of freedom of navigation,  maritime security, and expeditious resolution of disputes according to provisions of international law (the UN Convention on Law of the Seas, 1982), developing a Code of Conduct, and settlement through dialogue and peaceful means. India has to build on its relationships through AEP to achieve a credible deterrence against China’s hegemony.

The AEP is still evolving and India must continue to focus on further strengthening collaboration with ASEAN nations in the coming years. India also needs to use AEP to work on improving India’s connectivity with ASEAN, particularly to North East India via the trilateral highway, the Kaladan project (which will connect the ports of Kolkata and Sittwe in Myanmar), and the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) to promote peace and prosperity in the region. These partnerships should also be used for promoting economic revival, strategic cooperation to fight terrorism and enhance maritime security and defence cooperation. In addition, the use of soft power such as Buddhism, tourism, people-to-people contacts, and cultural ties with the region must continue to be harnessed (Sajjanhar, 2016).

Going forward (though beyond the AEP) but as a continuum to ASEAN, India must further strengthen strategic and economic ties with the U.S., Japan, South Korea and Australia.  Though the relationship with China is also of economic significance, it has been hampered by China’s unwillingness to address India’s concerns related to RCEP and border skirmishes. This needs to be watched.

An interesting development, which could be in the interest of India, is that ASEAN countries are losing their trust in China owing to China’s hegemonic behaviour. A recent survey of Southeast Asian perception of China by the Singapore-based Institute of Southeast Asian Studies has revealed facts that may have implications for India’s Act East policy and help India’s policymakers calibrate their approach towards the region. State of Southeast Asia 2021 survey, tracking the trust and distrust ratings of major powers in the region, asserts “two juxtaposing trend lines with regard to Southeast Asian perceptions towards China, as simultaneously the most influential and most distrusted power in the region”(Ghoshal,2021).

A research report published in the Times of India print edition (Ghoshal, 2021a) has pointed out that India’s Act East needs to factor in South East Asia’s growing distrust with China.  It has been brought out that with China’s trust quotient going downward, that of the USA has improved in the eyes of Southeast Asian countries.  The report stated that:

More revealing is the confirmation that Beijing’s charm offensive towards Southeast Asia through its cloud and ground diplomacy, together with its apparent success in containing the pandemic domestically, its “mask and vaccine diplomacy” couldn’t change that trust deficit arising essentially from the former’s bellicosity, artificial island-building and land grabbing, and most recently its new legislation allowing Chinese Coast Guard personnel to “take all necessary measures”, including the use of weapons, against foreign ships it deems as intruders.

It is interesting to note that this has happened despite China was the main mover of the RCEP Agreement and recently expressed intention to join the ‘Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership’ (CPTP while the USA has chosen to walk out of it. At the country level, seven ASEAN countries have chosen to side with the US this year, including Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. Keeping this vital perception shift in mind, it’s important for the Indian foreign policymakers to re-calibrate their approach to Southeast Asia in the coming days (Ghoshal, 2021b).

Conclusion

India is currently in an unenviable situation, surreptitiously cornered by China through its Debt Trap Diplomacy, BRI, CPEC, RCEP etc. India has also been hampered by China with its reach in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Mauritius, and Nepal. The Covid-19 pandemic and border skirmishes with China have added to India’s woes. It is important for India to recover from pandemic effects and stabilize its economy on the fast track.

It is recommended that India may consider the following measures to effectively bolster its AEP and in the bargain strengthen its position in Indo-Pacific and Indian Ocean Regions.

  1. Effectively strategize its geo-politico-economic ties with ASEAN-BIMSTEC-Japan-South Korea-Vietnam and other countries in the region.

  2. Make effective use of QUAD and a growing distrust of ASEAN with China to establish its leadership position in the region.

  3. Focus on tangible infrastructural development in North East region of India.

  4. Use AEP to resolve its concerns related to RCEP and join the grouping.

Hopefully, India will make effective use of this opportunity to gain in rightful position in the region. Jai Hind.

(Commodore SL Deshmukh, NM (Retd), has served the Indian Navy for 32 years and Member, C3S. An alumnus of the prestigious Defence Services Staff College Wellington, he has served on-board aircraft carriers and is specialized in fighter aircraft and ASW helicopters. He held many operational and administrative appointments including Principal Director at Naval HQ, Commodore Superintendent at Naval Aircraft Yard, Director, Naval Institute of Aeronautical Technology, and Project Director of a major Naval Aviation Project. Post-retirement he was with Tata Group for 5 years and is currently working with SUN Group‘s Aerospace & Defence vertical as Senior Vice President. The views expressed are personal.)

References:

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Lynch III Thomas and Przystup James J, Mar 2017,  Institute for National Strategic Studies(INSS)- National Defense University  (NDU Press),  India-Japan-Strategic Cooperation and Implications for U.S. Strategy in the Indo-Asia-Pacific Region, Retrieved from: https://css.ethz.ch/content/dam/ethz/special-interest/gess/cis/center-for-securities-studies/resources/docs/INSS_US-Strategic-Perspetives-24.pdf,  Pages 10-12, accessed on 13-14 Mar 2021

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Kesavan KV, 14 Feb2020a, ORFonline, India’s ‘Act East’ policy and regional cooperation, Retrieved from  https://www.orfonline.org/expert-speak/indias-act-east-policy-and-regional-cooperation-61375/ , Pages 4-5 Accessed on 13-14 Mar 2021

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Lynch III Thomas and Przystup James J, Mar 2017,  Institute for National Strategic Studies(INSS)- National Defense University  (NDU Press),  India-Japan-Strategic Cooperation and Implications for U.S. Strategy in the Indo-Asia-Pacific Region, Retrieved from: https://css.ethz.ch/content/dam/ethz/special-interest/gess/cis/center-for-securities-studies/resources/docs/INSS_US-Strategic-Perspetives-24.pdf,  Pages 10-12, accessed on 13-14 Mar 2021

Kesavan KV, 14 Feb2020, ORFonline, India’s ‘Act East’ policy and regional cooperation, Retrieved from  https://www.orfonline.org/expert-speak/indias-act-east-policy-and-regional-cooperation-61375/ , Pages 4-5 Accessed on 13-14 Mar 2021

Prabir De Prabir , Nov 2018, Economic Times,  “Shared Values, Common Destiny: What we expect from the 16th ASEAN-India Summit,” Retrieved from: https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/blogs/et-commentary/shared-values-common-destiny-what-we-expect-from-the-16th-asean-india-summit/ accessed on 13-14 Mar 2021

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