ASEAN And Beyond: How India Is Using Act East Policy To Expand Its Geopolitical Footprint In The World

 

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The NDA government can be satisfied with the considerable progress registered under the Act East Policy (AEP) launched by Prime Minister Modi at the East Asia Summit in Myanmar in November 2014.

AEP is the natural successor to the Look East Policy (LEP) initiated by  Prime Minister Narasimha Rao in 1992. LEP was primarily focused on strengthening economic ties between India and ASEAN countries. The end of the Cold War provided a welcome opportunity for India to reach out to South East Asia to capitalise upon its  cultural and civilizational linkages with this region.

LEP registered impressive gains for 20 years after its inception. India and ASEAN embarked on a Summit Partnership in 2002 and operationalized a Free Trade Agreement in goods in 2010. The last few years have however failed to advance the relationship to the next level.

AEP seeks not only to reinvigorate India’s relations with ASEAN but expand its engagement beyond this region to encompass a much wider expanse.

ASEAN, however, continues to form the central pillar of AEP. This is evident from the active exchange of bilateral visits that has taken place over the last 20 months. The Indian President, Vice-President and Prime Minister have, among them, travelled to nine out of the 10 ASEAN countries. External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj has also visited several ASEAN states.

Myanmar occupies a special position in AEP as it provides a springboard for India’s North East to connect with ASEAN nations.

The India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral highway can be a game changer to connect India’s North East with ASEAN countries. This 1,360-km-long highway would establish seamless territorial connectivity when it is completed by 2018. India is a party to the ambitious Trans-Asian railway project, but progress has been less than satisfactory.

Thailand occupies a unique place in promoting AEP. In addition to historical, cultural, maritime, business, religious and linguistic ties between the two countries, the large Indian diaspora in Thailand presents a unique opportunity for upgrading bilateral engagement. After the recent successful visit of Vice-President Ansari, several high level visits of the Thai PM, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, and Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn in the coming months will further strengthen ties.

India has strong bilateral relations with Indonesia, Singapore and Vietnam. Singapore is the second largest source of foreign direct investment for India and has always been supportive of closer ties between India and ASEAN. Goh Chok Thong, the then Prime Minister of Singapore, had in 2004 equated ASEAN with the body of a large airliner, with China as one of the wings and the need to provide a second wing in the form of dynamic relations with India.

Relations with Indonesia present significant possibilities. PM Modi had a productive meeting with Indonesian President Joko Widodo in Myanmar in November 2014 on the sidelines of the East Asia Summit. Relations have been further advanced by the visits of VP Hamid Ansari and EAM Sushma Swaraj in 2015. Although, a cultural interaction is advancing rapidly, it is essential to engage Indonesian businessmen to further enhance bilateral commercial and economic ties.

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Vietnam constitutes a significant trade, strategic and defense partner of India. Its significance has grown considerably on account of the growing assertiveness of China in the South China Sea with the latter having declared it as a core issue.

Negotiations on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) are due to be finalized this year. With the conclusion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), it has become imperative for RCEP members to urgently conclude an ambitious, balanced and equitable deal. India-ASEAN FTA in services and investment, expected to come in to force this year, will enhance India’s exports because of  inherent strength of India in the service sector.

Allocation of $1 billion to promote connectivity between India and ASEAN, announced by PM Modi in Malaysia in November 2015, will contribute significantly to bringing India and ASEAN closer.

The future of India’s Act East policy has to be woven by the twin strands of economic engagement and strong security ties. This is being achieved through stronger security cooperation with Myanmar and smooth connectivity and economic partnership between India’s North-East and ASEAN states.

PM Modi has made determined efforts to reach out to other countries in East Asia to create greater  strategic space and provide impetus to several initiatives launched by the government for speedy economic development of the country like Make in India, Skill India, Digital India, Smart Cities etc.

China’s increasing intractability over the last many years has added to anxieties of countries in South East Asia and beyond. They want India to play a more active countervailing role in the region. This meshes flawlessly with Indian efforts to reach out to countries in the region for mutually beneficial engagement.

India’s relations with Japan have seen a momentous upswing since the NDA government assumed power. Japan was the first bilateral visit undertaken by PM Modi outside the South Asia neighbourhood. It resulted in a commitment by Japan to invest $35 billion in India over the next five years, including in some flagship initiatives like smart cities, the Delhi-Mumbai industrial corridor, shinkansenbullet train etc. During Japanese Prime Minister Abe’s reciprocal visit in December 2015, the decision was taken to conclude a bilateral civilian nuclear deal. The India-Japan partnership has blossomed from being an economic transactional one to being truly strategic in scope, content and nature.

The last 20 months have seen a rapid evolution of ties between India andAustralia. The Australian Prime Minister visited India in September 2014 and signed a civilian nuclear deal. Australia has the world’s largest reserves of uranium and is the second largest producer of this mineral. This agreement is immensely beneficial as India seeks to enhance its nuclear energy generation from the current 5,000MW to 20,000MW by 2022 and 62,000 MW by 2032.

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Modi travelled to Fiji and met 12 leaders of the Pacific island nation. This was the first visit by an Indian PM to Fiji in 33 years. This was followed by a visit to India by leaders of 14 Pacific island countries. These contacts will be hugely beneficial in providing India with critical support on issues like reform and expansion of the UN Security Council, conclusion of a comprehensive convention on international terrorism etc.

Modi went to Mongolia, the first Indian PM ever to visit this friendly country. Presence of vast reserves of uranium and inking of a civilian nuclear deal added further substance to this partnership.

Modi travelled to South Korea to further deepen bilateral commercial and economic partnership. Discussions on upgrading the bilateral FTA to a balanced and equitable comprehensive economic partnership agreement have been initiated.

During President Obama’s visit as chief guest at India’s Republic Day celebrations in 2015, Modi stated: ‘’For too long, India and the US have looked at each other across Europe and the Atlantic . When I look towards the East, I see the western shores of the United States.’’ The Joint Statement ‘’Shared Effort: Progress for All’’ issued during the US President’s visit recalled ‘’Noting that India’s Act East Policy and US’ rebalance to Asia provide opportunities for India and the US and other Asia-Pacific countries to work closely to strengthen ties, the leaders announced a Joint Strategic Vision to guide their engagement in the region.’’

India’s Act East Policy has imparted greater dynamism, vigour and focus to relations with countries to its east. This has acquired greater relevance in the global geostrategic space. India’s political, strategic, security, economic, commercial, cultural and people-to-people relations with ASEAN countries as well as USA, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, Bangladesh and China are poised to expand, providing India with an opportunity to play its rightful role in the region and the world.

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Ashok Sajjanhar

The author is a former Ambassador of India to Kazakhstan, Sweden and Latvia. He is currently President, Institute of Global Studies.”

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