Significance: In separate statements, P.M. of India said that Singapore has a special place in India’s Act East Policy that is built on the foundation of a strong India-ASEAN relationship. Also, the President of India said that focus of the Centre’s Act East policy aims at providing access to new markets for the State of Mizoram.
History of Act East Policy: Before devising an Act East policy, India had a Look East policy. It was an effort to cultivate extensive economic and strategic relations with the nations of Southeast Asia in order to bolster its standing as a regional power and a counterweight to the strategic influence of the People’s Republic of China. It was Initiated in 1991 and it marked a strategic shift in India’s perspective of the world away from the influences of non-alignment.
In 2014, P.M. in India told world leaders that his government accorded high priority to turn India’s erstwhile Look East policy into an Act East policy. It serves as a platform for deepening and strengthening its relationship with ASEAN and the East Asian economies. The least-developed nations of Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar and Vietnam (CLMV) have been a special focus area for India.
Differences between Look East and Act East:
- Geographical range: Act East Policy focusses on the extended neighborhood in the Asia-Pacific region. Look East Policy was primarily targeted to bolster the relationship between ASEAN countries and India. Act East Policy include the regions up to the East China Sea. India has upgraded its relations to a strategic partnership with Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Japan, Republic of Korea (ROK), Australia, Singapore and Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and forged close ties with all countries in the Asia-Pacific region.
- Dimensions: Look East Policy primarily included only strategic initiatives. It has since gained political, strategic and cultural dimensions including establishment of institutional mechanisms for dialogue and cooperation.
- Regional to multilateral: Apart from ASEAN, India has expanded its involvement to ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and East Asia Summit (EAS). India has also been actively engaged in regional fora such as Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), Asia Cooperation Dialogue (ACD), Mekong Ganga Cooperation (MGC) and Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA).
- Inclusion of North East India: Act East Policy is to promote economic cooperation, cultural ties and develop a 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 including Arunachal Pradesh with other countries in our neighborhood. The North East of India has been a priority in our Act East Policy. AEP provides an interface between North East India including the state of Arunachal Pradesh and the ASEAN region.
- Infrastructure, Connectivity Projects: AEP policy emphasize to develop and strengthen connectivity of Northeast with the ASEAN region through trade, culture, people-to-people contacts and physical infrastructure. Some of the major projects include Kaladan Multi-modal Transit Transport Project, the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway Project, Rhi-Tiddim Road Project, Border Haats, etc.
Critical Analysis of AEP:
- External factors: The political instability and the frequent regime changes in countries like Myanmar, Thailand cause delays in achieving the objectives of AEP.
- Role of China: China has capitalized the opportunities of delayed implementation of projects by India. During the past decades, China has made a substantial influence in the region. India is also concerned about the growing assertiveness of China in the South China Sea.
- Indian diaspora: Diaspora in India is not yet active in these countries and not an active stakeholder in India’s progress.
- Divergence in engagement: Even though India have convergence in strategic issues of South China Sea with countries like Philipines, there is very little engagement both countries.
Conclusion: Act East Policy has to be refocused to enable the dream of the Asian Century which is a projected 21st-century dominance of Asian politics and culture, assuming certain demographic and economic trends persist.