India's Act East Policy goals

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The so called ‘peaceful rise of China’ is now the thing of the past, as she is now asserting herself actively and a kind of security competition among the various players in South Asia and South East regions has already started. China’s assertiveness is reflected through her actions in south China Sea, her increase in military presence on the islands, her belligerent relations with Japan, Australia and India etc. The recent border clashes with India in Ladakh has again raised a question mark on her peaceful rise. It also at the same time has increased the apprehensions as how India will achieve its goals set in Act East policy. ASEAN has emerged a core area for India’s trade and security options, as trade between them has almost doubled to reach over US$ 87 billion in 2019-20.

Look East Policy was introduced by the then Prime Minister of India Mr. P. V. Narsimah Rao in 1991, to connect and play more viable role in eastern countries, especially within ASEAN. So its main aim was Economic Integration of South Eastern countries.  Over the past three decades India has penetrated deep in this region by gaining economic, diplomatic and strategic depths. To act more proactively the Narinder Modi Government has made an important policy shift in 2014 by turning LEP into Act East policy. This was the well calculated response to emerging realities globally and in this region in particular.

What is Act East Policy? In 2014 Prime Minister Narinder Modi while addressing Indian ASEAN summit said that, “Look East Policy has now become Act East Policy”, same was carried forward by the ex-foreign minister of India Mrs. Shusma Swaraj at her visit to Vietnam in the same year. This shift focuses on extended neighborhood policy in the Asia Pacific region, to promote economic cooperation, cultural ties and furthering strategic depths with key players there, through bilateral, regional and multilateral engagements. India is also pro-actively now involved in regional fora, like, Bengal Initiative for Multi Sectorial Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), Asia Cooperation Dialogue(ACD), Mekong Ganga Cooperation (MGC) and Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA). India’s main focus is to develop connectivity of North Eastern States to ASEAN and beyond through trade, culture, people to people contacts, physical infrastructures like road transportation, and telecommunication.

Where is the shift? Look East policy was much focused on economic gains, while as taking note of the emerging realities, Narinder Modi Government brought strategic and security option on the fore front. Act East Policy is economic and security integration. India is giving now focus to forge strategic alliances with the countries like Vietnam, Japan, Malaysia, South Korea, Australia and groups like BIMSTEC and IOR. Connectivity programs is the core focus of Act East Policy. India has shown positive response to Japan’s Free and Indo Pacific and South Korea’s New Southern Policy.   India’s pet word is SAGAR, which is security and growth for all the regions. India has calculated well the declining hegemony of US in this region and aspires to forge sound strategic rule based relations with like-minded countries, where all will respect each other’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, and equal status. Norms based on consent of all, maritime security, freedom of navigation and over flight and unimpeded commerce in Open Seas will be the mantra of this new relationship. India, is however, apprehensive and rightly so, about China’s evil intentions, which may try to adopt every means to disturb India’s economic growth and will put obstacles in her growing influence in this region.

For the last one decade China is busy in encircling India through what is called, ‘String of Pearls’, Chinese strategy to build naval basis in the strategically located points of the Indian Ocean. Straight of Malacca, Srilanka, Pakistan, Maldives and the Straight of Harmuz are prime targets of China to encircle India.

Similar is China’s Belt And Road Initiative (BRI), the 21st century Maritime Silk Road, a huge investment, trade, connectivity and infrastructure build up, involving around 65 countries, 30% global GDP, 62% of world population and 75% world energy reserves. (World Bank Group March 29, 2018). While it is received warmly by many countries, however, it is detrimental to India’s interests in several ways. It is diminishing its influence in its neighborhood, in Indian Ocean Region and is violating her sovereignty and territorial integrity on the other hand. It may lead debt trap, environmental degradation, corruption and instability in its neighborhood and will put India’s interests at stake.

The South China Sea dispute, on which India is still having a neutral position, too will be in future detrimental to India’s interests. China is in great trouble with states that lie either way of this disputed area. India’s investment in Vietnam’s coastal areas is already irking China. Chinese militia’s operation on the Western end are targeting those countries that have strong military and political relationship with India. China’s spy activity has also risen around Indian Ocean keeping an eye on Indian naval movement. This is a greater concern for security establishment in India.

Also, the weapons used by the insurgents in North Eastern States are usually made in China weapons. This brings to fore the Chinese links with insurgency in these states. This was also revealed by NIA, in its charge sheet in 2011 against Anthony Shimray, chief arms broker of National Socialist Council of Nagaland. The two most preferred transit routes for arms supply to these groups are Burma and Bangladesh, the immediate gateways for India’s Act East Policy. China-India standoff in Ladakh is intended to engage India so that her other ambitions are impeded in East Asia.

What are the option before India?

Trade, investment, aid, assistance programs, be enhanced and encouraged for South East Asian nations. Whatever is in pipeline towards this region should be carried forward. For Taiwan and Singapore, missions of cultural exchange, investment, people to people contact and help in natural and unnatural crisis be prioritized.  India can also take the advantage of South China Sea dispute. All those states which already are in trouble with China can find a good and helping friend in India. Revisiting relations with the states in immediate neighborhood, especially with Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar, Srilanka and Maldives; why leave them for dragon. Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand should also find their place in this list, first two for their unfriendly behavior in very recent past and third one for having larger Indian diaspora there.  Building stronger ties with Far East especially with Japan, South Korea and Australia, all the likeminded countries, will be of greater strategic, diplomatic and economic benefit.

The author is Assistant Professor Political Science, at, HKM Govt. Degree College Bandipora,