India’s Act East Policy has been given a fillip with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent visits to the countries of the East and Southeast Asian regions. On 8 September, he concluded a visit to Laos, where he participated in the 14th India-ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Summit and the 11th EAS (East Asia Summit) meetings. Before Laos, he was in Hangzhou, China to participate in the 11th G20 summit on 4-5 September. Moreover, on 3 September, 2016, Prime Minister Modi became the first Indian Prime Minister to pay a state visit to Vietnam after former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s visit in 2001.
In 2015, he had paid state visits to Singapore, China, Mongolia, and South Korea. In August 2016, Indian Minister of External Affairs, Sushma Swaraj also visited Myanmar, which has been perceived as an attempt to reach out to Myanmar. India’s reaching out to the East Asian and Southeast Asian countries demonstrates its increasing economic and diplomatic footprints in the Asia-Pacific region aimed at giving a much-needed impetus to the Act East policy.
During his visit to Laos, Modi not only represented India’s case in the ASEAN-India Summit but also boldly put forth Indian position at the high-table of the East Asia Summit, which includes the ten member countries of ASEAN and eight major stakeholders in region—the US, China, Japan, South Korea, Russia, India, Australia and New Zealand. On the margins of the summit meetings, he also met leaders including Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, US President Barack Obama, South Korean President Park Geun-hye, and Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi.
During the East Asia Summit meeting, Modi boldly put forward India’s firm stand on terrorism. Without naming Pakistan, he said, “There is one country in our neighbourhood whose competitive advantage rests solely in producing and exporting terrorism.
The time has come for us to stop this global export of terror.” Putting forth India’s concerns on Pakistan at all major forums seems to be Modi’s new strategy to deal with the menace of state-sponsored terrorism. This strategy is likely to work in India’s favour as it would put more pressure on Pakistan.
The highlight of the ASEAN-India Summit was Modi’s emphasis on tackling the threat of terrorism. In his address, Modi highlighted the challenge of terrorism to all countries. He said, “Rising export of terror, growing radicalisation through ideology of hatred, and spread of extreme violence define the landscape of common security threats to our societies. The threat is local, regional and transnational at the same time.” During the meeting, he also pushed for greater digital and physical inter-linkages between India and the ASEAN countries. There was a consensus during the meeting that new vistas of cooperation need to be explored.
The two sides agreed to expeditiously work together on strengthening infrastructure linkages, connectivity and increase in trade and investments between India and the ASEAN member states. Modi also announced a US$1 billion fund to promote projects that support physical and digital connectivity between India and the ASEAN. He also announced the augmentation of the ASEAN-India innovation platform to facilitate commercialisation of low cost technologies and cooperation in capacity building in solar energy.
In his address during the meeting, Modi stated that ASEAN is central to India’s Act East Policy. Indeed, since 1992, when former Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao launched the Look East Policy, renamed by the Modi government as the Act East policy, ASEAN has remained central to India’s engagement with the East.
India’s political, economic, strategic and cultural engagement with the Southeast Asian countries has widened and deepened over the years.
Over the past more than two decades, ASEAN-India partnership has crossed several milestones, making the Look/Act East Policy India’s most successful foreign policy formulations since Independence. India became a “Sectoral Dialogue Partner” of the ASEAN in 1992 and a “Full Dialogue Partner” in 1996. India joined the East Asia Summit in 2005. The two sides signed the Strategic Partnership agreement in 2012. ASEAN and India are not only strategic partners now; they have also successfully managed to increase the trade by several folds. The ASEAN countries and its six partners—China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand and India are working together to make a region-wide Free Trade Agreement termed RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership) a reality. The success of RCEP will lead to a more integrated region, with India working more closely with countries of the region, including China.
ASEAN holds substantial importance in India’s strategic calculations. Friendly relations with the ASEAN member countries, particularly with Myanmar and Thailand are also important for maintaining stability and development of India’s northeastern region. Engaging comprehensively with ASEAN and its member countries is critically important in boosting trade, investment and connectivity linkages.
In essence, Modi’s visit to Laos was successful enough in giving a fresh impetus to New Delhi’s relations with the region and reinforcing India’s position in ASEAN and East Asia Summit gatherings.
Dr Rahul Mishra is a Research Fellow at the Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi. Views expressed are personal and do not represent the views of ICWA.