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Modi's Look East Policy - Asia/Pacific

Modi's Look East Policy

Posted by Aneela Shahzad on

Late Narsimha Rao envisioned the Look East Policy in the 1990s after Russia’s withdrawal from Afghanistan and the symbolic end of the Cold War. During the Cold War, India was somewhat protectionist under its socialist ideals; its east was not seen as quite lucrative; and Southeast Asia was rife with wars. But once the Cold War was over and India changed sides to the US, slowly embracing its capitalist lure, it was natural to look all around for markets. 

Since Narsimha, India’s Look East policy had been rather sluggish until the Modi government took the leap of revitalizing it into a more ambitious Act East Policy, but has the leap been just symbolic? 

The 5 years of Modi’s tenure is dotted with visits to its east and to Southeast Asia, actively trying to consolidate efforts in sub-regional forums like the BIMSTEC, BBIN, BCIM and SASEC, where several road and rail projects have been committed to and work is under way. This includes the corridor from Kunming, China to Kolkata, India, passing through Myanmar and Bangladesh, under BCIM; the East–West Economic Corridor between Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam that will further connect to India via the India–Myanmar–Thailand Trilateral Highway; and the Mekong India Economic Corridor which will connect Vietnam, Myanmar, Thailand and Cambodia, linking it to Chennai, India. But what needs to be seen is whether all these corridors passing through Southeast Asia, making a land bridge between the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean, will be serving India’s purpose more or that of China’s in the future – a future that will be dictated by the volumes of goods each party has to move through these corridors.

Though many of the Act East projects may not have seen much progress yet, as many have seen delays and many are still conceptual, yet they have created the needed ideological precedence for PM Modi’s wider ambition to counter China’s regional dominance that is tending towards a global one. Consolidating around India is indeed a plus for the Southeast Asian states too. They can see India as a counter-balance to their growing commitments with China, as they explore the fruits of an envisaged multipolar world. 

In the Act East context, India’s maritime reach has been comparatively better than its land reach. The biennial Milan joint naval exercises and the Mausam cultural project based on finding cultural links with India’s maritime neighbours and the annual Malabar Exercises between the US, India, Japan, Australia quad are serving India’s outreach in the Indian Ocean region. But these joint ventures do not mean that India has attained a solid foothold at any of the ports in the Southeast Asian states that will be serving as gateways of commerce in the near future. India needs to understand that permeation into Southeast Asia for worthwhile economic collaboration will be two-pronged – it will rely on maritime facilities and linkages but the maritime component is useless without a web of lucrative land routes complementing it.

Looking deeper, the fact is that whenever India has to look to its east, the first countries that demand attention are Bangladesh and Myanmar and ensconced between them is India’s Achilles Heel, the seven sisters of Northeast India. Bangladesh is weary of India over dams built on 3 of its rivers, their border dispute and the newly created NRC issue for Bengalis living in Assam and India’s ingress in Bangladesh’s waters. India has also had had border issues with Myanmar since long as it has been accusing the country of allowing northeast Indian insurgent groups to operate across its borders. The northeast itself has been completely neglected. It has been traditionally seen by the center as a hazard than an opportunity. There are well over a dozen separatist groups in this region and perhaps their very presence has kept India from introducing development projects there. 

China, on the other hand, has started several infrastructure projects in both these countries. This includes a 750-acre industrial park in Chittagong and a 70% share in the strategic port of Sittwe in Myanmar. The Sino-Myanmar gas pipeline linking Sittwe with Kunming in Yunnan province of China is another project in Myanmar. Reportedly, China has been involved in around 90 different energy projects in Myanmar, including the planned or on-going construction of at least 10 dams. As of now, China is the largest trading partner of Bangladesh with investments going up to $200 million in 2010. China’s cultural entrée into these states is also greater as they have a large Chinese Diaspora of an influential business class, whereas Indians who went there have been mostly those brought by the British to work as plantation workers and agricultural labourers. 
An Act East policy, though much-needed and sought for, is really short of funds, expedience and history. Indian economist and vice-chairman of the NITI (National Institution for Transforming India) Rajiv Kumar, realizing India’s internal state of mistrust and lack of connectivity, says, ‘India needs to have a genuine Northeast Policy and then a Myanmar Policy and after that a Look East Policy for the ASEAN’ and ‘India needs to sign a free trade agreement with itself before it starts getting into free trade agreements with others’. That is perhaps why Modi appealed in the February 2018 ASEAN Summit to ‘invest in the northeast’, which, he said, was at the heart of India’s Act East policy because India is unable to do that itself. 

Rajiv Kumar also thinks that in order for northeast India to become a hub of commerce, like it used to be in the pre-partition days, both Bangladesh and northeast India have to be recognized and developed as a unified sub-regional entity, as all roads to the northeast go through Bangladesh. This means that India will have to overcome its fears of northeastern separatists and Bangladesh’s rise as a stronger nation, if it wants to play the role of a regional guardian. This is also true of India’s strained relations with Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Bhutan and Nepal. India can choose to be a hegemonic big brother or an equal partner its neighbors would love to do business with but it can’t be both.

Perhaps it is time for India to realize that to Act East it has to embrace the East and that perhaps, in addition to embracing skeptical neighbours, embracing China instead of confronting it, is the right Act East policy. If India continues to strengthen its ties with Japan, Australia, South Korea and even Taiwan, in all its Act East programs and exercises, that will be seen more of a Look West approach by the Southeast Asian states, which had rejected Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) in its entirety, even though Obama tried hard throughout his tenure to make TPP happen. This is a stamp by the Southeast Asian nations on the fact that they will not compromise China, who is closer, stronger and more generous in its dealings with smaller states, for an India that will be serving as a shadow of the U.S., a declining superpower.

This writeup was originally published at SouthAsiaMagazine