Five Years of India’s Act East Policy and the way Ahead

by Dr Udai Bhanu Singh - 4 March, 2020, 12:00 7471 Views 0 Comment

India’s Look East Policy (LEP), upgraded to Act East Policy in 2014 has attempted to establish some milestones in the last five years (2014-2019) while struggling with the umpteen challenges. At the ASEAN-India Summit at Naypyidaw in 2014 when PM Modi declared: “Externally India’s Look East Policy has become Act East Policy”, a move to a pro-active and energised policy had been made. As India’s AEP expanded to include the region denoted by the emerging concept of the Indo-Pacific in an environment of changing geopolitical configurations, several emergent geopolitical challenges confronted policymakers. ASEAN Centrality came under threat; China’s assertive approach to regionalism exemplified in the recent China-Vietnam tensions in the South China Sea. India’s AEP had to factor in:

a. The development of its Northeast to reap the benefits of linking with eastern economic success models (while tackling insurgencies)
b. its relationship with some of its closest regional strategic partners like Vietnam
c. its strategic/economic interests with the major powers including the USA and China but also Japan and Australia
d. its approach to the emerging regional security architecture and the regional economic architecture (especially RCEP) e. the contours of its maritime policy which would factor in our immediate Indian Ocean strategic interests without neglecting the Pacific.


The Look East Policy under Narasimha Rao was confined to Southeast Asia only. The LEP acquired a strategic dimension with India’s deepening engagement with the ASEAN process. India first became a sectoral dialogue partner (1992), a full dialogue partner (1995, before China) and ARF member (1996) and went on to sign the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (2003) after the relationship was raised to the Summit level partnership and culminated in the India-ASEAN Strategic Partnership Agreement (2012). This was further buttressed by India’s engagement with the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), the Ganga -Mekong Initiative, the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific (CSCAP), the East Asia Summit (EAS) and the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting Plus interactions.

The Act East Policy (AEP) under Prime Minister Modi includes within its ambit a wider geographical expanse (extending up to the Pacific Island countries, and within India, greater attention to hitherto neglected Northeastern Indian which border ASEAN’s Myanmar). ASEAN on its part, released the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific. At the outset, the document points out that it is not aimed at creating new mechanisms or replacing existing ones, but to strengthen ASEAN’s Community building process and strengthen ASEAN-led mechanisms (to better face challenges like SCS)

In 2012 the India ASEAN Commemorative Summit raised the partnership to the strategic level. The structural foundation (laid in the LEP phase) were hampered by the slow implementation. PM Modi assured ASEAN leaders in Nov 2014 in Naypyidaw that projects will be speeded up and trade policy improved. The tardy progress of projects on the border had been a constant source of concern which the AEP seeks to address.

New Delhi organised the Commemorative Summit to mark 25 years of India-ASEAN Summit level partnership with participation by all ten ASEAN Heads of State or Government and the issuing of the 36-para Delhi Declaration. India has emphasised engagement with immediate and extended neighbours: There were high-level visits to Bangladesh, Myanmar, Vietnam, Singapore, Japan, Australia and Fiji. PM Modi noted: “India’s Act East starts with Bangladesh”.

The Delhi Dialogue (conference) brings together the varied first and second track stakeholders together regularly. India brought together Pacific islands at the Second FIPIC Summit held in Jaipur.

Emerging Regional Architecture

China’s economic and military rise and growth of nationalism has prompted the quest for new security architecture. Beijing’s One Belt One Road (OBOR or Belt and Road Initiative, BRI) with the ASEAN States joining in, may have weakened ASEAN centrality. The Masterplan on ASEAN Connectivity 2025 requires an annual investment of $110 billion which explains the importance of China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB).

India sees a role for itself in shaping the emerging Security and Economic Architecture. India now has a dedicated mission to ASEAN (Jakarta) and an ASEAN India Centre (New Delhi). At the 14th EAS, Bangkok recently India mooted the ‘Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative’ to enhance maritime security. PM Modi of India has proposed a Seminar on Maritime security and cooperation in Chennai in 2020.

ASEAN-India FTA needs to raise current trade figures to $200 billion by 2022. India has conveyed its decision to withdraw from the RCEP negotiation process because its concerns on market access, regional value chains and services were not met. ASEAN-led forums like ADMM+ are yet to be fully exploited as are BIMSTEC and Ganga Mekong forum.

North East in India’s Act East Policy (AEP): AEP has emphasised Infrastructure development in the NER, including rail and road network with timelines for completion of connectivity projects: Kaladan Multimodal project, and Trilateral Highway and collaboration of ASEAN, Japan and other players are being obtained for infrastructure development. In addition, there is growing attention to border trade (which has long remained a fraction of the total trade-mostly maritime).

Myanmar in India’s Act East Policy: Myanmar is geostrategically important to India and it also goes to the election this year. Its importance increases in the light of the China factor, the Indian Ocean, India’s Northeast (insurgency and development), and the energy factor.

Vietnam in India’s Act East Policy: “Vietnam is a key pillar of India’s AEP” (PM Modi). In 2016 the two countries signed an Agreement to raise Strategic Partnership to Comprehensive Strategic Partnership. Earlier, (2015) the two sides issued a Joint Vision Statement on India-Vietnam Defence Relations for the period 2015-2020. Vietnam backs India’s bid for UNSC membership.

India and Vietnam have institutionalised interactions which include (under MEA) Joint Commission Meeting at the Foreign Ministers’ level and Foreign Office Consultations and (under MoD) Annual Security Dialogue at Defence Secretary level.

On 4 July 2019 China sent its survey ship, Haiyang Dizhi 8, escorted by other ships, to conduct activities in SCS (East Sea) violating Vietnam’s EEZ and Continental Shelf. Chinese ships intruded in two blocks 0.51 and 0.61 (viz. the block where Indian’s OVL, Petro Vietnam and Russia’s Rosneft are prospecting). India provided a balanced response to South China Sea developments. India is not a party to the dispute in SCS but 55 % of India’s trade passes through the SCS and Malacca Strait. India’s ONGC Videsh Ltd (OVL) has engaged in oil and gas exploration in some blocks off the coast of Vietnam since 1988. When China raised objections India conveyed that these activities by Indian companies are purely commercial in nature. India views China’s naval activity with some concern. The Joint Statement during Modi’s Sept 2016 visit highlighted ‘freedom of navigation and overflight’ and ‘international law’. India supports freedom of navigation, overflight and unimpeded lawful commerce in the international waters in accordance with international laws, notably the UNCLOS; Peaceful resolution of disputes, without resorting to the threat or use of force. India welcomed the Declaration of Conduct,2002 and measures to work towards the adoption of the Code of Conduct. New Delhi cites its example when India and Bangladesh settled their maritime boundary using the mechanism of UNCLOS.

Recommendations and the Way Forward

Vietnam will assume the Chairmanship of ASEAN in 2020; it will also mark the 25th anniversary of its admission to ASEAN. Vietnam will also join as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council in the 2020-2021 period. Vietnam will have to carve out its priorities during this year which will have implications for ASEAN and the larger Indo-Pacific region. A preview of this could be seen in recent Vietnam’s Defence White Paper, with its 4 ‘No’s’.

(no military alliance, no affiliation with one country to counteract the other, no foreign military base in the Vietnamese territory). Malaysia too brought out its first Defence White Paper (early December) highlighting the growing threat from tension in the South China Sea and terrorism, but it fails to map out a detailed strategy for 2020.

Two forthcoming elections will be watched closely in India. Myanmar elections will be held in 2020 where the fate of the National League for Democracy will be decided whose position on the Rohingya issue has met with international criticism. New Zealand will also hold parliamentary elections in late 2020 as its 52nd Parliament completes its term and pollsters predict it is going to be a close call.

China and ASEAN will continue to engage in the Code of Conduct (CoC) negotiations in 2020. According to one view, 2020 could see a mellowed China in 2020 preoccupied with domestic problems but the 2021 CoC deadline (which has progressed to an SDNT (Single Draft Negotiating Text) could get extended further. The US is expected to continue its freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS) in the SCS to ensure international access to its waterway.

President Trump has proposed ASEAN-US Summit in 2020. His poor track record of attending ASEAN-led meetings, isn’t a good augury for the Vietnam meetings scheduled for 2020.

From India’s perspective, its proactive Act East Policy will get a boost with two recent announcements. India will now have a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) which will help consolidate its security policy between its three wings of armed forces. Also with Mr Harsh Vardhan Shringla (current ambassador to the US) taking over as the new Foreign Secretary, the new year could see greater attention to its eastern neighbourhood and organisations like ASEAN and BIMSTEC. India, criticised for opting out of the RCEP negotiations among the 16 countries (10 ASEAN plus Australia, Canada, India, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea) may still consider joining in 2020 (according to some reports) if its concerns on Rules of Origin, and market access (esp in services) are met.

Dr Udai Bhanu Singh
Author is Senior Research Associate and Head of South East Asia and Oceania Centre at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.

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