After the end of cold war, India shifted its attention to East in order to materialise the benefits put forward by globalisation and liberalisation process. India perceived South East Asia as economically dynamic, technologically advanced and possible source of FDI investment in India. In 1992 under the leadership of the then PM Narasimha Rao adopted Look East Policy in order to integrate India in global economy. Look East Policy was a multipronged strategy which aimed at economic development; establish links for defence engagement; develop cultural relations and collaborate to deal with problems like terrorism. In 20 years India became a sectoral partner of ASEAN. India and ASEAN entered in summit partnership in 2002 and launched negotiations for Free Trade Association (FTA in 2003).
India’s Act East Policy Was introduced by PM Modi in the 12th ASEAN- India summit in 2014 in order to engage India and Asia- Pacific nations in more active partnership. Act East Asia policy included not only economic aspect of cooperative relations but also strategic and security cooperation between India and Asia Pacific nations. The security aspect includes- maritime security; cyber security, anti terrorism, drug trafficking and narcotics.
ASEAN forms the pillar of India’s Act East policy. Indian PM hosted a special ASEAN -India Commemorative Summit to give boost to Indian economy. In order to deepen India’s diplomatic, economic and cultural integration of the region, India has endorsed the Master Plan on ASEAN Plus Connectivity (MPAC) to enhance connectivity through land, water and sea routes. India’s North East region is critical to develop such connectivity. The North East has become the launching pad of Act Asia policy as it links ASEAN with India through Bangladesh and Myanmar. In order to increase physical and digital connectivity between India and East Asian region various initiatives have been taken.India is party to Trans Asian Railway project; Kaladan multimodal trade transit project and the Bay of Bengal initiative for multi sectoral Technical Economic Cooperation(BIMSTEC).The Trilateral highway connecting India- Myanmar and Thailand funded by Asian Development Bank is very critical for India’s connectivity with South East Asian nations. Once it gets completed it can be extended to Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. Since all these countries have centuries old traditional cultural and religious bonding with India, the physical connectivity by road will boost the people to people contact and confidence building that will provide solid ground for their political and economic relations. The strengthening of their relations may lead to introduction of single visa like Shangan( covering all the European countries) visa to facilitate the movement of passenger across the region by road.
Apart from ASEAN, India has become successful in strengthening its ties with East Asian nations like Japan, Australia and Korea to secure its economic , security and strategic interests. The reason for the changing dynamics of these relations is India’s changing geo political situation due to the rising power of China. Chinese hegemony is a significant factor in development of India’s Asia Pacific Strategy.
China’s growing military power, in Indian ocean and Pacific ocean and South China sea is posing serious threat to the regional stability. China is developing friendly relations with South Asian countries like Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Bangladesh and Myanmar and is developing advanced ports in these countries. China is developing trading routes via Pakistan incorporating Indian and Pacific oceans. China has deployed nuclear submarines in Indian ocean; large number of fishing boats in the Bay of Bengal; and building submarine base in Maldives. China’s strategy of String of Pearls’ has developed the perception of “strategic encirclement” in India. Due to rising military presence of China in South Asia and SEA, India’s geopolitical situation is changing.
India’s PM Modi has adopted Act East policy for a broader Indo- Pacific conceptualisation of Indian region. In 2015, India under Modi administration allocated $1 billion to build cultural and commercial connectivity between India and ASEAN. India has taken initiative of ‘Make in India’ ‘skill India And ‘digital India’ for rapid economic development ; promoting energy security and creating infrastructure. Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) agreement grouping ASEAN 10 and China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand and India is a major initiative as it represents 40% of the world population and 23% of the world’s gross domestic product.
India is trying to establish friendly relations with Japan, Vietnam, Australia and ASEAN to pursue its goal of economic development and prevent imperialist/ expansionist designs of any power in Indian ocean and Pacific Rim as well as in order to act as a member of global governance. India, Japan, SEA, Australia and US are joining hands to promote defence cooperation including bilateral and multilateral naval exercises in Indian Ocean and Pacific ocean.
In order to counter Chinese hegemonic designs in Indian ocean, India wants to have access to all sides of Indian ocean, therefore further strengthening its naval power by increasing its war ships, nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers in Indian ocean. India intends to safeguard its interests by deploying additional forces in the East China Sea and West China sea to maintain military balance in Asia.In order to counterbalance China’s hegemonic designs in the region, India perceives East Asia significant in grand strategic policy and planning. It Signifies that India would play a more prominent and active strategic role in maintaining stable Pacific Asian Regional as well as global order.
*** The author is Associate Professor of Political Science at Satyawati College, Delhi University ***