Bolstering India's 'Look East' policy

The Centre wants to emphasise boosting India's ties with Asean by enlarging core interests of the region.

As a follow up to India’s Look East policy introduced in the early 1990s, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made “Act East” a launch pad for his government’s more focused engagement with the Asia-Pacific region in the East.

Earlier, India’s Look East policy concentrated on the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean) and Japan but it was realised later that India’s outreach to the East cannot be confined merely to Asean and Japan and in the economic sphere only. Consequently, the Modi government decided to put more emphasis on improving India’s relations with Asean and the other East Asian countries by enlarging the core interests of the region to include the immediate requirements of national and regional security.

The regional actors consider India a relatively peripheral player in the region compared to the US, China and Japan. Obviously, these factors appear to act behind the evolution of the “Modi Doctrine”, which emphasises upon economic resurgence of the East with that of India with a view to arouse their confidence in New Delhi as a genuine regional security provider.

The Modi doctrine emphasises upon enlarging the earlier Indian mindset confined to ‘South Asia’ to include the entire East spreading up to West Asia and Africa. In fact, the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) is a strategic link from the Straits of Hormuz to the Straits of Malacca making it a highly volatile maritime zone. Modi understands that India and the Indian Ocean are appro­priate half-way points between West Asia and Southeast Asia.

For consolidating India’s maritime strategy and strengthening security in such a vast area requires an ambitious geo-strategic and economic goal as well as an institutional framework for creating an effective mechanism for the economic integration of the wider South Asian region linking India with the Asean economies.

Such economic integration will encompass time-bound connectivity infrastructure projects like China’s Belt and Road Initiative, production network linkages facilitated by FDI, and the integration of energy and electricity infrastructures.

Mounting tension in the Asia-Pacific due to China’s hegemonic and aggressive assertions have consequently prompted India to coordinate with super and major powers and also other regional members. Unfortunately, bilateral relations between Mya­nmar and Bangladesh suffer from bitter acrimony due to the Rohingya issue in Rakhine state.

Similarly, India must become more pro-active to resolve the Teesta river water-sharing issue with Bangladesh since both are working together in BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) as well as the BBIN (Bhutan, Bangladesh, India, and Nepal) corridor.

The India-Bangladesh cooperation referred to the BCIM (Bangladesh, China, India, and Myanmar) Corridor is an impor­tant forum of furthering relev­ant regional cooperation initiatives. Malaysia is another country to which India reached out first when it launched its Look East policy in the 1990s. The Malaysian prime minister put special emphasis on the RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership) as a free trade arrangement for this region with Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) coming to an end.

India-Oz ties
In the recent past, Australia-India ties have strengthened significantly owing to the China factor. Both countries recognise the “importance of freedom of navigation and over-flight and unimpeded lawful commerce in accordance with international laws.”

But India must continue forging closer economic integration and greater connectivity with the regional members as that would provide Asean states the means to reduce their over-dep­endence upon China.

Modi may have to concentrate on India’s long-neglected maritime imp­eratives as well as to think of India’s strategic future. He needs to concentrate upon safeguarding core Indian interests backed by a more assertive and credible military/maritime power.

Modi envisions that India must also expand its diplomatic, economic and military relations with all powers while pursuing its onward march. Indeed, vikas vaad (developmentalism) and vistar vaad (expansionism) as much as ahimsa and non-alignment are the driving force behind the unfolding of his vision of India’s peaceful ascent in the world. If the Modi Doctrine persists, then about a quarter century of ‘looking East’ is destined to be substituted by the much required policy of ‘acting East.’

Thus, all these developments have prompted India to revitalise its expanding relations with US, Australia, Japan along with other major powers. India’s outreach to the East has witnessed a significant transformation which does not depend solely upon one or two countries or even the Asean. In fact, India needs greater attention to Free Trade Agreements.

Thus, the Act East Policy has a very strong and effective agenda which can ensure peace and progress of the entire East and also the whole world in the true spirit of vasudhaiv kutumbkam. 

(The writer is Professor of Political Science, UP Rajarshi Tandon Open University, Allahabad)

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