Initiated in 2014 by the Narendra Modi-led government, India’s Act East Policy (AEP) is focused on reviving and reinvigorating India’s relations with ASEAN as well as in the extended neighbourhood in Asia-Pacific region. AEP is the modified version of India’s Look East Policy which was developed in 1991 to nurture extensive economic and strategic relations with the nations of Southeast Asia.
The Objective of “Act East Policy” is to promote economic cooperation, cultural ties and develop strategic relationship with countries in the Asia-Pacific region through continuous engagement at bilateral, regional and multilateral levels thereby providing enhanced connectivity to the States of North Eastern Region. The North East of India is at the heart of the Act East Policy (AEP).
Act East Policy in action
In order to develop and strengthen connectivity of Northeast with the ASEAN region various plans at bilateral and regional level have been established. These include Kaladan Multi-modal Transit Transport Project, the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway Project, Rhi-Tiddim Road Project, Border Haats, etc.
Apart from ASEAN, ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and East Asia Summit (EAS), India has also been actively engaged in regional forums such as BIMSTEC, Asia Cooperation Dialogue (ACD), Mekong Ganga Cooperation (MGC) and Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA).
Bilateral trade between India and Thailand has more than doubled over the last decade. Thailand’s prime minister’s state visit to India in 2016 has made a long-lasting impact on bilateral relations.
A Strategic Partnership agreement was signed during the visit of their Prime Minister to India in 2007 which has now grown into a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership. Bilateral trade between India and Vietnam has increased about ten fold in 10 years. Defence Co-operation has emerged as a significant pillar of strategic partnership between India and Vietnam. Oil exploration is another important area of cooperation between India and Vietnam.
In 2017 Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the 2,500-years-old Shwedagon pagoda, considered to be the pinnacle of Myanmar’s cultural heritage. The cooperation to restore AnandaTemple in Bagan with assistance of the Archaeological Survey of India is emblematic of the shared Buddhist heritage of India and Myanmar. Development cooperation has a significant role in India’s relations with Myanmar. This assistance portfolio is presently worth over $1.73 billion. India’s transport development cooperation is in line with Myanmar’s national priorities and also builds synergy with the Master Plan of ASEAN Connectivity.
Singapore is India’s gateway to the East, and its leading economic partner and a major global strategic partner. Singapore and India share a strategic partnership.Singapore is India’s leading destination and source of investments. Thousands of Indian companies are registered in Singapore.Sixteen Indian cities have over 240 direct flights every week to Singapore. Indians make up the third-largest group of tourists in Singapore.
India has happily sharedits experience with the Philippines in universal ID cards, financial inclusion, making banking accessible to all, facilitating direct transfer of benefits, and in promoting cashless transactions. Making affordable medicines available to all is another priority area for the government of the Philippines that India is ready to contribute to. India is also enhancing cooperation with the Philippines in facing the common challenge of terrorism.
Malaysia and India share Strategic Partnership and cooperate in a number of multilateral and regional forums. Malaysia has emerged as the third largest trading partner of India in ASEAN and is one of the important investors in India from ASEAN. Bilateral trade between India and Malaysia has increased more than two-fold in 10 years. India and Malaysia have a bilateral Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement since 2011. This Agreement is unique in the sense that both sides have offered ASEAN Plus commitments in trade in goods and have exchanged WTO Plus offers in trade in services. The Revised Double Taxation Avoidance Agreement between the two countries, signed in May 2012, and the MoU on Customs Cooperation, signed in 2013 further facilitate trade and investment cooperation.
Bilateral trade between India and Brunei has more than doubled over the last decade. India and Brunei share common membership of UN, NAM, Commonwealth, ARF, etc., and as developing countries with strong traditional and cultural ties, Brunei and India enjoy a fair degree of commonality in their perceptions on major international issues.
- LAO PDR
India has been actively involved in power transmission and agricultural sectors in Lao PDR. Today, India and Lao PDR cooperate in a number of multilateral and regional fora.India has extended Duty Free Tariff Preference Schemes to Lao PDR, encourage exports of goods from Lao PDR to India.
Indonesia continues to be India’s largest trading partner in ASEAN. Bilateral trade between India and Indonesia increased 2.5 times in the last ten years.Today, as Strategic Partners, the cooperation spans across the entire gamut of political, economic, defence& security, cultural and people to people fields.
Whether it is the annual Balijatra celebrated in Odisha or the legends of Ramayana and Mahabharata, which are visible across the entire landscape of Indonesia, these unique cultural threads umbilically bind the peoples of Asia’s two largest democracies in a special neighbourly embrace.
India had proudly undertook restoration and preservation of Angkor Wat temple during the difficult period from 1986-1993. India continues this valuable association in the ongoing restoration of Ta-Prohm temple. In the ASEAN context, and on various global platforms, Cambodia is an important interlocutor and a supportive partner for India. India is committed to remain a partner in Cambodia’s economic development and looks forward to further deepen its traditional ties.There is also an expansion in cooperation in diverse fields such as institutional capacity building, human resource development, developmental and social projects, cultural exchanges, defence cooperation, tourism and people-to- people contact.
Challenges to the Act East Policy
The political and economic scenarios of the ASEAN countries are not aligned. The variation ranges from democracy to monarchy to military rule. The other major areas which demand attention and have a potential of improvement include but are not limited to:
- State security: China’s assertive posture
- Territorial disputes in the South China Sea
- Fragile governance structures
- The need for India to take initiatives on economic front
- The major physical hindrance which is the lack of improvement and maintenance of existing transport networks
- Multilateral institutions and proactive diplomacy
Considering the fact that it has no territorial disputes with any of member states of ASEAN , India has an advantage of being a magnanimous partner to ASEAN. India needs to lay down a comprehensive plan to strengthen its relations with ASEAN and other nations. By achieving economic stability and building indigenous capabilities it can further increase its influence and represent itself as a balancing force.
- “Act East Policy”Press Information Bureau Government of India, December 23, 2015
- “India’s Vision on Act East Policy” Dhrubajyoti Bhattacharjee Research Fellow, ICWA at at the National Seminar on “India’s Act East Policy: Problems and Prospects in NorthEast India”atImphal, Manipur, January 28&29, 2016
- Taking Stock of India’s ‘Act East Policy’ by Ashok Sajjanh, ORF Issue Brief Issue No. 14, May 2016
- “ASEAN-India: Shared values, common destiny: Narendra Modi” Press Information Bureau Government of India, January 26, 2018
- “Narendra Modi in Myanmar: Indian PM visits Shwedagon pagoda, performs ‘puja’ at temple in Yangon”: Firstpost, September 7, 2017
- “Asean.. the pivot of India’s Act East policy” by Dinesh Kumar, Ministry of Extrenal Affairs Government of India,February 11, 2016
About the Author: Himani Chauhan, Pune (India) Independent Researcher