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10 March 2016, Gateway House

India’s Act East Policy and Myanmar’s Role

Ambassador Rajiv Bhatia, Distinguished Fellow, Foreign Policy Studies, Gateway House delivered a lecture on India's Act East Policy at Jadavpur University, Kolkata on 10 March, 2016 as part of the Ministry of External Affairs' 'Distinguished Lecture Series.'

Distinguished Fellow, Foreign Policy Studies Programme

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With the exception of India’s South Asia policy and policy towards the major powers, the Act East Policy (AEP) represents perhaps the most significant facet of the nation’s foreign policy as a whole. It has been depicted as ‘the cornerstone’ of India’s external relations. It encompasses all aspects of interactions such as strategic, political, security, socio-economic and cultural with numerous countries east of India, stretching from Myanmar, through other ASEAN countries, to China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, the Pacific island- states and the U.S. The policy’s impact and success would determine the extent to which India succeeds in safeguarding and promoting its national interests, while assisting the twin causes of security and development in a crucial region of Asia.

Stakes in the Indo-Pacific or Asia-Pacific or East Asian region are huge. The situation is complex and in a flux. Future developments will be moulded by an intricate interplay of economy, politics, defense and diplomacy of key stakeholders such as US, China, India, Japan, ASEAN and others. Hence the larger regional and global context needs to be kept in view as we examine the trajectory and impact of India’s policy towards the East.

The fact that in the past 22 months India’s top three dignitaries – the President, Vice President and PM – visited nine out of ten member-states of ASEAN; that the PM, in addition, paid visits to China, Japan, Australia, South Korea, Mongolia and Fiji; and that a long series of high-level visits from the area to India too took place, is a clear indicator of the growing importance of the region and our policy under discussion.

Policy: Origin and Evolution

Public memory is proverbially short, but scholars cannot afford amnesia. They are always conscious of history, ready to draw suitable lessons from it. Hence Prof S.D. Muni is right in arguing that the policy has ‘a strong historical legacy’ and pointing out that ‘…the Look East Policy did not come just from nowhere in 1991.’ Two points are noteworthy here. First, India’s extensive exchanges and linkages with the eastern countries should be viewed as ‘four waves’ – pre-colonial, colonial, post-independence and since 1990 – as advised by this eminent scholar. Secondly, the origin of Prime Minister Narasimha Rao’s Look East Policy (LEP) may be traced to the diplomatic initiatives his predecessor, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, took in 1980s. Yet, it is also necessary to recognize that specific factors appeared in early 1990s in India (and its North East), ASEAN and the larger region, which led to the birth and development of LEP.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi specifically mentioned the transformation of LEP into AEP at the India-ASEAN Summit in Naypyitaw in November 2014. Before him, the phrase Act East Policy was used by Sushma Swaraj, External Affairs Minister. Analysts also refer to the fact that while obliquely criticizing LEP, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had advised India to not only ‘look east’ but also ‘act east.’

In this context, I would recommend to my esteemed audience here to peruse two valuable books on the subject, both edited by Ambassador A.N. Ram and published at the initiative of Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA). These are: Two Decades of India’s Look East Policy and India’s Asia-Pacific Engagement. A little known fact also deserves to be mentioned here. Before ‘AEP’ acquired wide usage, Paramjit S. Sahai, a former high commissioner to Malaysia, wrote (in the second book mentioned above):

India would have also to give a new thrust to its LEP. I would like to call it ‘Act East Policy’, while some of my friends from ASEAN would like to call it ‘Go East Policy.’

Define the Difference

Critics of the Modi government’s Act East Policy seem to suggest that there is little difference between this policy and LEP. Others tend to emphasize the novelty and originality of AEP. The fact of the matter is that AEP is a conscious upgradation of LEP, a calibrated response to the changing situation in the region as well as to evolution of India’s priorities in its economic and security strategies.

As I have argued elsewhere, a careful comparison of LEP and AEP shows that the new edition of the previous policy has five notable features:

Firstly, the focus on tangible action and concrete results is inherent in the change from ‘Look’ to ‘Act’. Secondly, while ASEAN continues to be the central pillar or core of the policy, South Block is investing much more (than before) in deepening cooperation with the extended region, comprising in particular US, Japan, Australia and South Korea, in order to cope with a marked increase in China’s assertiveness. Consequently, the third feature is boldness on India’s part in the security, defense and strategic domain.

Fourthly, India might become even more cordial and cooperative with ASEAN, but hard-nosed too. At the first summit itself, the Indian PM called for conducting ‘a review of our free trade agreement.’ A strong push is being given to negotiations for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) with the aim to conclude them in 2016. Besides, higher dedication was promised for creating “the trident” of commerce, culture and connectivity. Finally, the new government indicated clearly that India’s North Eastern Region (NER) would receive a higher priority in the implementation of AEP.

State of Play 2016

Of the two components of the policy – vis-à-vis ASEAN and the extended region, let us first take up the former.


India-ASEAN dialogue partnership began in 1992 and the summit partnership in 2002. Thus in 2017, the two sides will celebrate the silver anniversary of the former and the completion of 15 years of the latter. A year earlier, at the beginning of 2016, the strategic partnership is in good shape, even though its full potential is yet to be realized. This is evident from the following:

  • India has welcomed and supported the creation of the ASEAN Community in December 2015. (It is still work in progress.) ASEAN has been deeply appreciative of the Modi government’s new policy initiatives at home and abroad. New Delhi views India and ASEAN as ‘two bright spots of optimism amidst ongoing economic uncertainties.’
  • Two summits (in 2014 and 2015) produced substantive outcomes. Thirty annual dialogue mechanisms are in existence. Three funds, namely ASEAN-India Cooperation Fund, Science and Technology Fund and Green Fund are in operation to finance a variety of projects. The S &T Fund has been enhanced from $1 million to $5 million. Action Plan for 2016-20 has been adopted in August 2015. Cooperation encompasses diverse sectors such as trade and investment, food, agriculture, tourism and ICT etc.
  • Unlike a few other nations, India adheres to the principle of ‘the centrality of ASEAN’ in East Asian affairs. It is hoped that ASEAN will appreciate the need for its own unity, solidarity and integration as the fundamental basis on which this centrality is clearly dependent.
  • India is taking the question of security, including maritime security (both against traditional and non-traditional variety), with utmost seriousness. Its views on the situation in the South China Sea have been articulated frequently with clarity and consistency. The essence is a call for ‘restraint’, ‘responsibility’, adherence to international law and norms, upholding of freedom of navigation and security of sea-lanes and, above all, avoiding the threat or use of force. ASEAN has reason to be assured of India’s continuing support for an early conclusion of negotiations for a binding Code of Conduct (COC), building up on the previous Declaration on Code of Conduct (DOC).
  • India advocates an inclusive, balanced, transparent and open regional architecture for security and cooperation in the Asia-Pacific. ASEAN-India consultations and cooperation are getting deepened through various ASEAN-led fora, including the East Asia Summit, ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting and expanded ASEAN Maritime Forum.
  • The Modi government has announced two new initiatives: (a) a Project Development Fund with a substantial corpus of `500 crores (about $75 million) to develop manufacturing hubs in CLMV countries, and (b) a new Line of Credit of $1 billion to promote projects that support physical and digital connectivity between India and ASEAN.

Vice President Hamid Ansari, speaking at Chulalongkorn University on 4 February 2016, observed: ‘The rationale for a strong ASEAN-India Strategic Partnership is clearer than ever.’ It is, therefore, ‘natural’ that the two sides would work ‘towards a qualitatively more substantive and invigorated relationship.’

Extended Region

With regard to the extended region covering non-ASEAN countries, it may first be useful to pinpoint the key trends reflected in main developments during the current decade. Territorial disputes between China and a few countries in the South China Sea and the East China Sea, the arms’ buildup, the unspoken competition between two emerging economic groupings – TPP and RCEP, debate on a new regional security architecture and on cooperation to counter non-traditional threats to security, and China’s drive towards ‘One Belt, One Road’ (OBOR) and ‘Maritime Silk Route’ (MSR) initiatives – all combine to reflect the current concerns and priorities. Evidently, the Indo-Pacific landscape has been undergoing, as scholar-diplomat A. N. Ram put it aptly, ‘a reconfiguration of the tenuous post-Cold War political equilibrium, strategic balance, military and maritime positioning and economic expansion and competition…’

What these trends reflect in their essence, is a strategic contestation between the US – the dominant power – and China – the rising power – for re-ordering of their roles in the Asia-Pacific region. Scholars, recalling similar conflicts of the past between Sparta and Athens, Great Britain and Germany, USSR and US, caution that a purely binary approach to define the ongoing US-China rivalry should be eschewed. They point to its unusual complexity, given the two nations’ intense mutual economic inter-dependence as well as the apparent desire of regional players to continue profiting from China’s economic rise even as it creates strategic discomfort and anxiety to them. Prevailing uncertainties have led experts to argue that the region has to prepare itself for divergent outcomes: sharpening of competition, expansion of cooperation, and possibility of confrontation and conflict.

In this light, the Modi government pursues a policy that blends India’s economic, political and strategic imperatives. The focus is on accelerating economic growth, connectivity with ASEAN and beyond, and maritime security. At the same time, there is evidence of calibrated boldness on strategic issues. This is reflected in endeavours to improve relations with China, while taking the strategic partnerships with US, Japan, Australia and South Korea to a new level of consolidation as evident from the new agreements signed in the past two years and several other actions.

Policies designed to strengthen India’s defense capabilities would be followed with vigour, but basic fault lines would be maintained. This explains New Delhi’s call for the region to concentrate on economic development and avoid tensions and conflict. A significant element of this policy is to help the East Asia Summit (EAS) to be strengthened and made more effective.

Myanmar’s Role

Among ASEAN countries, Myanmar enjoys a unique position for India. It is the only member-state of ASEAN that has both land and maritime borders with India. It might be a stranger to many in other parts of India, but not in West Bengal. This is where Myanmar/Burma has been studied, researched and monitored by generations of scholars since long.

As I have argued in my book, India-Myanmar Relations: Changing contours, Myanmar and India are important to each other. India’s importance for Myanmar may be explained in terms of ethnicity and religion. To the Burman majority, the Buddhist connection has been the most compelling and lasting bond between the two countries. Besides, a collective memory of interactions and exchanges – philosophical, spiritual, cultural, and commercial – between the two lands persists. As for India, Myanmar is a nation of considerable importance as a partner capable to cooperate for the security and development of our Northeast, as a strategic ‘buffer state’ in the context of the ‘China factor’, as a key constituency for our AEP, and as an attractive market as well as an economic partner.

The New light of Myanmar put it aptly in its editorial dated 30 May 2012: ‘In fact India needs Myanmar, and Myanmar also needs India, and that is the common ground.’

Myanmar has been in transition from military rule to democracy since 2010. The past five years witnessed a significant transformation in its internal and external situation. Parliamentary elections on 8 November 2015 opened a new phase. The quotient of democracy is set to increase further, but power sharing will guide the nation’s affairs in the future. Myanmar seems to be like a car that may be driven by two drivers – the NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi and Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing. If the two leaders forge cooperation, the country will move forward. If they fail to do so, trouble could loom ahead.

Given this intricate situation, some in India advocate a ‘wait and watch’ policy. I do not agree. We have vital stakes in Myanmar. Activism – calibrated and purposeful – rather than passiveness should guide our policy. We need to work closely and pro-actively with both centres of power. India, for its own interests, would welcome a stable, strong, inclusive and democratic Myanmar. Adopting a long-term and enlightened perspective, it is now time for India to increase its attention and assistance to a friendly and important neighbour. Success in Myanmar will contribute to the success of our AEP.


In December 2016 when the Modi government reaches the mid-point of its five-year term, we may be in a sound position to judge the results of AEP. A five-point yardstick, as articulated by this author elsewhere and delineated below, may be useful for the proposed evaluation:

i. Trade ($77 billion in 2014-15) and investment ($71 billion during 2007-15) between India and ASEAN need to increase. Without this, AEP may be unable to claim spectacular success in the future.

ii. India-ASEAN connectivity projects, started long ago, need to be completed at the earliest. Deadlines for completion of the Kaladan multi-modal transport project in Myanmar and the trilateral highway project (linking India, Myanmar and Thailand) are 2019 and 2018 respectively. New Delhi has to do everything possible to avoid further slippages. The two new initiatives mentioned above – for CLMV and for ASEAN – should also be put into effect as soon as possible.

iii. Considering that the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) is heading towards fruition, parties to the negotiations for RCEP pact (i. e. ASEAN, India and others) can hardly afford further delay in finalizing and signing it. The common objective is to complete this task before the end of 2016. Will this be achieved?

iv. Countries concerned about the situation relating to the South China Sea might just succeed in persuading China not to rock the boat too much. Military conflict or accidents have to be avoided, even if political tensions and arms race might continue. This will bear a close watch.

v. Finally, elevation of the East Asia Summit (EAS) into an effective platform for policy coordination would be another important facet to watch.

Rajiv Bhatia is Distinguished Fellow, Foreign Policy Studies, Gateway House.

This speech was delivered at Jadavpur University, Kolkata on 10 March, 2016 as part of the Ministry of External Affairs’ ‘Distinguished Lecture Series.’

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