The idea behind developing “Act East” Policy is to boost the economic and social conditions of Northeast India, as well as to improve the trading relations of India with Southeast Asian countries. The primary aim of the policy is to revive the political ties, receive regional security cooperation and developing trading relations for integration with Southeast Asia. The significance of the Northeast region had increased in this policy due to its cultural and historic ties as well as strategic geographical positioning in Southeast Asia.  Northeast Today writes in-depth about the policy and its possibilities.

 

Image Credit: The Economic Times

Last year in the month of November 2, in his first official visit to Thailand, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that Northeast India is being developed as a gateway to Southeast Asia under Central government’s Act East Policy (AEP). He also added that the plans are on cards to establish seamless connectivity between Thailand, Myanmar and northeast India in the years to come.  “Our focus is to connect India’s northeast with Thailand. Northeast is being developed as a gateway to Southeast Asia. This initiative will immensely strengthen India’s Act East policy and Thailand’s Act West Policy,” Modi said in his address at the ‘Sawasdee PM Modi’ event in Bangkok on day one of his visit for ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), EAS (East Asia Summit) and RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership )Summits.

 

 

The Act East Policy has been in discourse and in focus for some time and has created hope in the Northeast region in the backdrop of its close proximity with Southeast Asia whether it is on cultural, social and geographical ground. With the setting up of a department named  Act East Policy Department to ensure the implementation of Act East Policy in a time bound manner, one can sense the seriousness of the Government in executing the idea as soon as possible. The policy is not only a shift from ‘west’ to ‘east’ in its perspective, but also a shift from mainland India to Northeast India, a region which is traditionally believed to be neglected by the centre. Act East Policy is a new geographical imagination, where Northeast India and South Asia is one region with many possibilities. This new imagination created much hope and encouragement among the people of Northeast as it eliminates the idea of Northeast India being a periphery region.

The development and enhancement of this policy suggest that India had sensed the shift in the power from the ‘west’ to ‘east’, which was necessitated by the changing geo-political conditions and trends in the Asia-Pacific region.

The objectives of ”Act East Policy”

  • The Objective of ”Act East Policy” is to promote economic cooperation, cultural ties and develop
  • Strategic relationship with countries in the Asia-Pacific region
  • Continuous engagement at bilateral, regional and multilateral levels thereby providing enhanced
  • Connectivity to the States of North Eastern Region
  • The North East of India has been a priority in the Act East Policy (AEP).
  • AEP provides an interface between North East India and the ASEAN region.
  • 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.
  • Apart from ASEAN, ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and East Asia Summit (EAS), India has also been
  • Actively engaged in regional forum such as BIMSTEC, Asia Cooperation Dialogue (ACD), Mekong
  • Ganga Cooperation (MGC) and Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA).
  • Closer cooperation in combating terrorism, collaborating for peace and stability in the region and
  • Promotion of maritime security based on international norms and laws are being pursued.

From Look East to Act East: Tracing its origin

It was the 1990s, when the idea of this policy was evolving. In 1991 former Prime Minister of India,  P V Narasimha Rao launched the Look East Policy in the backdrop of the end of the Cold War and also following the collapse of Soviet Union. The policy had often been described as “a multi-faceted and multi-pronged approach to establish strategic links with many individual countries, evolve closer political links with the ASEAN, and develop strong economic bonds with the region”.  The main focus of this policy was to shift the country’s trading focus from the west and neighbours to the booming South East Asian countries.

It is important to note that traditionally and in the past India had significant trade relations with the countries from West rather than East, which included  USA, UK, Canada,  Russia and OPEC countries (Organization Of The Petroleum Exporting Countries) along with Japan. South Asia was not there in trading scenario.

However, after the Cold War the global trading scenario changed within a period of a few decades. The economy of South Asian economies grew significantly across the period.  India sensed this significant change and initiatives to diversify its trade directions towards the East, particularly East Asia and South East Asia. The policy evolved into a tool for greater economic engagement, forging strategic partnerships and security cooperation with India’s neighbourhood from Southeast Asia to Far East – such as Vietnam and Japan.

It was also aimed at eliminating the insurgency problem in the Northeast once and for all by way of opening up the region to Southeast Asia. In this way, the sea and land promised to become interlocked elements in India’s eastward thrust. In short, the Look East and Act East policies have had military, political and economic components.

This policy continued till the formation of the NDA government in 2014. Taking this idea forward, the Modi lead new government decided to focus more on improving its relation with ASEAN and the East Asian countries. Since the formation of the new government in the centre, the government upgraded the Look East Policy to “Act East Policy”, with the motivation to act rather than looking at East. The policy was launched at the East Asia Summit in Myanmar in November 2014.

The main difference between “Look East Policy” and “Act East Policy” is that the former aimed to increase economic integration with  South East Asian countries and was confined to South Asia Countries whereas the latter aimed to increase both economic and security integration with “South East and East Asian countries”. In this sense, Act East Policy is broader in perspective both in policy level and geographical extension.

Connectivity strategy for the North-Eastern region.

  • There has to be a master plan for linking all the North-eastern states together with a network of
  • Road, rail and air links.
  • Bangladesh is also increasingly open to reviving the old river navigation routes, which were the
  • Main transport links in undivided eastern India.
  • India has recognized that success of AEP will be determined by its contribution to security and
  • Economic development of Northeast India.

Northeast India’s past relationship with South and Southeast Asia

The region,  popularly known as Northeast India is officially called North Eastern Region, NER  comprises eight states – Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim and Tripura. Previously, before the formation of NER, the states of North Eastern India were officially recognized under the North Eastern Council (NEC), which was constituted in 1971. During that time and even in the time of launching of  Look East policy in 1991, Sikkim was not part of Northeast India officially. Long after initiation of NEC, Sikkim was formed as part of the North Eastern Region as the eighth state in 2002.

 

Image Credit: Neetu Singh Direction

The region is very crucial, as well as strategic for its geographical positioning, troubled political past, ethnic diversity and trans-border reality. Most importantly, the region’s International geographical proximity makes it both vulnerable as well as full of possibilities. The region shares an international border of 5,182 kilometres with India’s neighbours,  which is about 99 per cent of its total geographical boundary. Not only that, this sharing of the international border is not with only one country, but with several countries which includes, – Tibet Autonomous Region, China in the north, Myanmar in the east, Bangladesh in the south-west, Nepal in the west and Bhutan in the north-west. This simply makes North East region’s spatial position very vital in the context of Act East Policy. If not Northeast India, which part of India will connect India with the rest of South East Asia.

However, it’s not the geographical connection which connects North East India to South and South East Asia.  North East India has a strong historical and cultural ties with its neigbouring countries. Many indigenous communities of North East India are trans-border in nature and lives both sides of the border as a result of past migration history. In the past, there had been high flow of migrations among the trans-Himalayan regions for which communities with similar racial affinities are found in various parts of South and South East Asia. The Nagas, Mizos, Ahoms and Bodos migrated from various parts of the north of Himalayas and the Southwest China and various parts of the Southeast Asia to Northeast as per research reveals. This had greatly contributed to the cultural assimilation in the region and in turn, created a cultural bond among the people of these regions beyond present political borders. The fact is that still there have been certain traditions of various ethnic communities that have similarities with those of the people of Northeast India and other parts of the South, Southeast Asia.

It needs to be mentioned here that there were four historically recognised routes through which India was connected with South, Southeast Asia in the past. These routes are- 1) the Central Asian Route or the famous Silk Route, 2) the route of Assam, which from Assam to Upper Burma or the famous Southern Silk Route, 3) the route of Tibet-Nepal and  4) the sea routes or the Maritime Silk Routes

Among these, the routes of Assam and Tibet played a crucial role to connect Northeast India with the rest of Southeast Asia, particularly China. The route of Tibet was through Nepal, Bhutan and Lohit region of present Arunachal Pradesh. The route of Assam passed through Burma to China. This route had three sub-routes: i. the first one was by the valley of the Brahmaputra up to the Patkai range and then through its passes up to Burma; ii. the second was through Manipur up to the Chindwin valley; and iii. the third one ran through the Arakan range up to the Irawaddy valley. All the three met on the frontier of Burma, and then proceeded over the mountains and across the river valley to Kunming which was the southern province of China. These routes were in extensive use in the past. The usage of the Tibet and Assam routes is testified by many historical events of different times. These have significance for the relations that existed in the past between Northeast India and China.

 

Image Credit: Observer Research Foundation

Road Connectivity and Trade

  • India helped Myanmar in completing 160 km of the Tamu– Kalewa–Kalemyo sector of the
  • Proposed Trilateral Highway that seeks to link India, Myanmar, and Thailand.
  • By pursuing the Mekong–India Economic Corridor (MIEC) project, India seeks to get access to Laos,
  • Cambodia, and Vietnam
  • BCIM economic corridor, a highway linking Kolkata in India to Kunming in Yunnan province of China
  • The Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport
  • Project, between India and Myanmar
  • Access to sea ports in Bangladesh that would link the North East to South East Asian countries, and
  • also to mainland India

The current policy:

Relying on India’s past connectivity with South and South East Asia the current policy was developed from the past Look East Policy with the main objective of the policy is to promote economic cooperation, cultural ties and develop  strategic relationship with countries in the Asia-Pacific region.  It is important to note that the idea is not limited only to the ASEAN countries. Apart from ASEAN, ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and East Asia Summit (EAS), India has also been actively engaged in regional forum such as BIMSTEC, Asia Cooperation Dialogue (ACD), Mekong Ganga Cooperation (MGC) and Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) for execution of the idea.

Hence, Act East Policy has sought to significantly expand its geographical coverage beyond ASEAN alone, to include other countries like Japan, Australia, Pacific Island nations, South Korea, and Mongolia.  The renewed focus of the Act East Policy is evident in the extensive high-level visits—by India’s president, vice president, and prime minster to nine of the 10 ASEAN states—over the last few years.

One significant development in India has recognized that the success of the current policy will be determined by its contribution to security and economic development of Northeast India, hence the region can’t be ignored. There has to be a master plan for linking all the North-eastern states together with a network of road, rail and air links.

In the policy, Japan plays an important role compared to other countries. The long standing and multi-facetious history of India’s relationship with Japan witnessed a commendable height among all bilateral relationships in India. Under the Act East Policy regime, Japan was PM Modi’s first overseas bilateral visit outside the subcontinent. In the 12th India-Japan Annual Summit held at Gandhinagar, the Capital of Gujarat, the Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Shinzo Abe chairing the summit stated  “we are trying to align each other’s approach towards the world and towards the region. In Japan’s case it is the Indo-Pacific strategy (connecting Asia and Africa). In our (India’s) case it is the Act East policy”.

Conclusion

It is evident from the above discussion that Act East Policy is mostly a trade oriented policy with a security perspective.  In this scenario, Northeast India, which has a troubled militancy past, various political issues related to self-determination and many other burning issues along with poor infrastructure, finds it difficult to put itself in the larger scenario. Almost all the corridors proposed as part of the sub regional initiatives pass through ethnically volatile and militant prone areas.  On the Indian side, the roads would pass through areas where militants are still operating. It is logically feared that one of the few mega biodiversity regions in the world might be impacted by pollution and fragmentation of habitat.

Despite many challenges, Act East Policy is full of possibilities if challenges are addressed. To make the relationship more fruitful with South and Southeast Countries, India should focus on soft power such as the age old cultural ties, Buddhist tradition, tourism, cordial relationship of trans-border communities, and shared historical memories with the region must continue to be harnessed.  All countries of the region, except China are dependent on external funding or are required to allocate a significant proportion of their budget for these projects, which is a tough task.

Interestingly, the recent development of the policy suggests that it is gradually becoming  ‘Indo-Pacific’. India has placed the ‘Indo-Pacific’ at the heart of its engagement with the countries of South, Southeast and East Asia. In 2018, in his keynote address at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, Indian Prime Minister had espoused a “free, open, prosperous and inclusive Indo-Pacific Region”. He had, in addition, called for common commitment, based on shared values and principles, to promote a rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific. Gradually, Act ‘East’ is getting transformed into Act ‘Indo-Pacific’.

Reflecting on the Act East Policy

Dr. Dolly Kikon from the University of Melbourne, Australia says,

Both the Look East to Act East policies implemented by the government of India focuses on economic ties and trade with the ASEAN countries. When we break down big visions like trade and economy, they usually mean mobility, flow of goods, and regional connections between Northeast India and its Southeast Asian neighbors. This is an attractive policy, but we need to reflect what this means for the people of the region. Given the grand infrastructure projects across Northeast India such as dams, superhighways, and bridges, there is a visibility of development of progress. Within the region, it is also creating connections and linkages between towns and villages. For instance, the Bogibeel Bridge that cuts down travel time between Assam and Arunachal Pradesh is a fine example.

However, the focus on the Act East policy is aimed at strategic economic partnership including bilateral defence partnerships. Free trade agreements between India and its neighbours is one of the key attractions. Focused on private investments and economic development, Northeast India will at best remain a corridor and a transit for profits and good to pass through. Given the long drawn ceasefire agreements and stalled political negotiations, perhaps it is important to remember that the Act East policy has nothing to do with ushering development and peace in Northeast India. The leaders, business executives, and policy makers will sit in Delhi and appoint people from the region to run errands and manage local matters.

Regarded as the gateway to Southeast Asia, this is the chance to envision a regional federation with autonomous powers to control and manage flow of revenue, ideas, and visions. If New Delhi expects people from Northeast India to be excited about the Act East policy, it has to give them a realistic vision of controlling their resources. However, the first step of the government of India towards the Act East policy should be focused on brokering political negotiations with armed groups in the region. Unless we can focus on ushering peace and building trust across societies traumatized by decades of conflict in the region, the Look East, Act East, will soon become a Forget East policy.

 

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