The Look East Policy (LEP) which was introduced during the regime of former Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao and seriously implemented during Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh’s time is now the Act East Policy. Will it affect any change or is it a mere change in nomenclature? Let’s take a closer look.
Beyond ASEAN Nations
Under the leadership of Modi, a strengthened agenda emphasizing on relations with East Asian neighbours, particularly the ASEAN nations is a top priority especially when the United States is also engaging in something similar called the ‘Pivot to Asia’. The Look East Policy was utilized heavily for strategic partnerships and security cooperation with Vietnam and Japan specially, but in a recent convention in Hanoi, Sushma Swaraj strongly advocated the need to replace the decade old policy with the new one which has ambitions of playing a much more proactive role in this region. A closer analysis will reveal that there are several significant areas that AEP plans to implement. Since India as a nation has matured over the last several decades since 1992 when there was turmoil with the collapse of the Soviet Union, changes in policy are essential. The economy of India was dwindling and the LEP did fairly well with bi-lateral trade with the ASEAN nations.
The fact that the current leadership, including the President and Vice President, has been making trips to ASEAN nations which were stagnating for a long time indicates that this government is very serious about AEP. These trips have resulted in several discussions and initiatives; one of them is the new focus on promoting connectivity between Myanmar and Thailand with other ASEAN states. A $1 billion allocation has also been made to promote connectivity, trade and culture and the government strongly recognizes that the success of AEP will be determined by the development of NE India.
Various other concerns like security, political ties, bilateral trade and counterterrorism are also being discussed. On the economic front, India is keen to conclude talks on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) agreement. The implementation of the Free Trade Agreement on Investment and Services between ASEAN and India in 2016 seeks to promote the development of all member countries. Meanwhile, AEP has sought to significantly expand its geographical coverage beyond ASEAN nations, to include other countries like Japan, Australia, Pacific Island nations, South Korea, and Mongolia.
In the Right Direction
By aligning India’s Act East Policy with the US Pivot to Asia through the Joint Strategic Vision, India seeks to expand its geo-strategic space. However, these are the early days of AEP and India must continue to focus on and emphasize further strengthening collaboration and ties with ASEAN countries. Partners from both sides have recognized at the international level that there is potential in this policy and more importantly the need to rejuvenate ties on trade, maritime security and counter terrorism. In addition, Modi’s use of soft power such as Buddhism, tourism, people-to-people contacts, and cultural ties with the region must continue to be harnessed.
By Amlan Das