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India’s Act East Policy (AEP) has paid great dividents of late. There is a need to capitalize this advantage.

In Part 1 of the article, we examined the objectives and efficacy of the India’s Look East Policy.  In this part, let us examine the way forward for India’s act east policy.

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.

  • Effectively strategize its geo-politico-economic ties with ASEAN-BIMSTEC-Japan-South Korea-Vietnam and other countries in the region.
  • Make effective use of QUAD and a growing distrust of ASEAN with China to establish its leadership position in the region.
  • Focus on tangible infrastructural development in North East region of India.
  • 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.

References:

Title image courtesy: https://asean.org/

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the views of the Government of India and Defence Research and Studies

Cmde S L Deshmukh

By Cmde S L Deshmukh

Commodore SL Deshmukh, NM (Retd), has served Indian Navy for 32 years, is a Mechanical Engineer is specialised in both Marine & Aviation domains. He also holds a Masters in Defence Studies and a Post-Graduate in Management. He has served onboard aircraft carriers and is specialised on 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. He is alumni of Defence Services Staff College Wellington. He was with Tata Group for 5 years and is currently working with SUN Group‘s Aerospace & Defence vertical as Senior Vice President. He is also the Life Member of Aeronautical Society of India.