India has emerged as a significant economic, military, and cultural power on the Asian map over the ages. However, with the advent of the Cold War, Asia got divided into two separate regions, with two separate power-blocs – South Asia and Southeast Asia. The Southeast Asia bloc quickly got together to form a regional forum – ASEAN, whereas South Asian states struggled for a unanimous, joint regional platform. Thus, unlike ASEAN, the South Asian forum – SAARC, struggled with post-colonialism, nation-building, and bilateral endeavors, which eventually cut it off from ASEAN in the longer run (Datta, 2017).
However, India acted as a bridge between South and Southeast Asia to not only strategize its growing importance in both the regions, but to bridge the growing economies of South Asian nations like Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka with Southeast Asia. India, being a culturally diverse country itself, has had ancient ties with many Gulf and Southeast Asian countries from time immemorial. Therefore, India, armed with its public diplomatic power, delved further to discover these ancient ties and restart the deep historical links between South Asia and Southeast Asia, with established routes for the movement of goods and services. These ancient routes from time immemorial not only facilitated the intersection of ideas, arts, and sciences but allowed cultural and religious exchanges. Thus, it led to the free movement of goods, services, labor, knowledge, and capital within the two regions to pave the way for a greater Asian common market (Chandramohan, 2011).
In fact, former National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon calls this soft power strategy an overwhelming development. According to him, this area of public diplomacy is India’s strategic culture of its own, which as he mentions, “have resisted the siren calls for us to do what others want us to, in the name of being responsible or stepping up to the plate” (India Writes, 2013). This has not only produced a sharp sense of awareness on the country’s part but has also judged the limits of India’s powers, and its potential in prioritizing between regional goals, and self-interest. It has moved beyond the post-modern underpinnings to deal with issues of the twenty-first century, by elaborating and building upon this strategic thought. Through this, it has forged its own vocabulary and perspective for engaging its neighbors and other regional actors with zero isolationism, and a huge library of heritage to draw from (Menon, 2013).
Act East Policy: A Strategy of Upgradation, Renewing Relations
India’s Act East Policy is a much-needed continued up-gradation from PV Narsimha Rao’s brainchild – the Look East Policy of 1992. While the Look East Policy focused mainly on liberalization of economic policies in Southeast Asia, the re-christening of the policy to Act East by the Modi-led government has provided it with an immediate strategic dynamism for engagement, where traditional civilization links with Southeast Asian countries are pursued to restore contacts, vis-à-vis economic liberalization (Panda, 2018). Furthermore, it also helps in extending India’s diplomatic hand to the entire Asia-Pacific region, up to Japan. These factors establish India’s strategy in Southeast Asia as a quest to create a multipolar regional order with India as one of its equal poles. India’s plan is not to establish a stubborn leadership as a rising power, but to invest political and economic capital in developing infrastructure, connecting the Indian subcontinent to Southeast Asia.
These concepts laid down the principles of Modi’s “Panchamrit” of Indian Diplomacy, complimenting Nehru’s “Panchsheel”. The way of using such soft power by India might have been taken from Koenraad Elst’s anecdote, where he mentions that “India is still ill-suited to the conventional framework of the modern nation-state, it better identify itself as a civilizational state” (Elst, 2014). As such, India’s new vision of soft power entails a balanced way of its old values and new strategic adjustments. However, soft power is evolutionary by definition, which is clearly visible in India’s soft power under PM Modi, especially through the upliftment in its relations with the Gulf countries, ASEAN, the EU, and most of all, the United States. Among other things, India’s soft power is reflected in the fact that Trump has become the second US President to visit India in the first term of his office. This transformation, if reflective of the way soft power, helps middle powers to better relations with major powers.
Chandramohan, B., 2011. The Uses of Public and Cultural Diplomacy, New Delhi: Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis.
Datta, S., 2017. India – the bridge linking South and Southeast Asia, New Delhi: Observer Research Foundation.
Elst, K., 2014. Civilisation truths about India, New Delhi: The Pioneer.
India Writes, 2013. Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India. [Online] Available at: https://mea.gov.in/articles-in-indian-media.htm?dtl/22645/India+has+a+unique+strategic+culture+and+diplomatic+style [Accessed 19 June 2019].
Panda, R., 2018. From Look East to Act East, Bhubaneswar: The Pioneer.
*** The author is currently a student of Diplomacy, International Law and Business at O.P. Jindal Global University, India ***