Y Mhonchumo Humtsoe,
Post Graduate Programme, (International Relations),
North East Christian University, Dimapur
Soon after India got liberated from British domination, the newly independent India paid no attention to the North Eastern part of India. Not only did it neglect the North Eastern part of its territory but it also paid no heed to South East Asian countries. Therefore, it was during the time Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao in the year 1991, mooted the “Look East Policy” to build a better relationship with South East Asia countries. Thus, the North Eastern part of India became indispensable as this region can make inroads into the South East Asian countries.
Initially, the focus of the Look East Policy was on the economic domain to attract more investment and technology from East Asia countries. But later on, under Prime Minister Atal Bihar Vajpayee, it became strategic as well. In the year 2011, after 20 years of its implementation, a debate arose that India should not only Look East but also Act East. In the meantime, the Secretary of the United States Hillary Clinton during her visit to India suggested that Look East must become Act East as India must engage more with the East. The United States wanted to encourage India’s role in the South East Asia region to become an important player to balance China. But Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at that time did not respond to such suggestions.
However, no sooner did the Government change in 2014 and the Modi Government came to power, the new Government changed Look East Policy to Act East Policy. This Act East Policy accelerated the focus on the North Eastern part of India as the gateway to penetrating South East Asian countries, especially the Eastern Indian Ocean, that is, the Bay of Bengal. The Bay of Bengal’s security and economy became an important strategic goal for India under its new Act East Policy. Under the Act East Policy initiative, the Indian Navy and Coast Guard also started visiting the Western Pacific to increase maritime cooperation with Japan and Vietnam. Through this policy, India has taken a proactive approach to initiating intense exchanges with South Asia, South East Asia and Australia. Moreover, India also set up a full-fledged mission to ASEAN with an Ambassador. It also sent a delegation to Shangri-La Dialogue 2016 and in the same 2018 Dialogue, Modi gave a stunning speech. This was the first time that an Indian Prime Minister gave a speech at an Asian Security Conference Shangri-La.
One of the most important parts of India’s Act East Policy is to put the entire Indo-Pacific at the top of its priorities. Indo-Pacific simply means the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean. In Act East Policy, India has continued to consider ASEAN as the important cornerstone and its developmental regionalism as an important player just like the Look East Policy. However, in the previous Look East Policy, India had extended the scope to geographical terms. The older Look East Policy focused on East Asia only but the new Act East Policy focuses on South Asia, South East Asia, Bangladesh, Myanmar and also the Pacific Island countries et al.
As a part of the Act East Policy, India is focusing on Bangladesh and Myanmar by making good bilateral relations through trade and investment. India has increased engagement with the North Eastern region as a part of this policy. India’s Act East Policy focuses on the security dimension of the Indian Ocean. India in the past shied away from taking responsibility but now India has agreed to take security responsibility in the Eastern Indian Ocean and the protection of global commons. Global commons mean resources that are shared by the entire globe. For instance, space, cyberspace, Oceans, etc. India respects the idea of a free and open global commons therefore India respected the UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea) settlement of its maritime boundaries with Bangladesh but China did not respect the UNCLOS ruling on the South China Sea in 2016. India condemned this behaviour. India has shown a willingness to ensure a free and open Indo-Pacific along with the United States and other countries. It is not only the South East Asian countries that are in trouble by China but India has also faced the same Chinese interference. China has developed the maritime Silk Road Initiative to create assets in India’s naval territory. Chinese submarines had made a port to Sri Lanka and Pakistan. And because China interferes with Indian territory through a “String of Pearls” initiative, India also interferes in East Asia and South East Asia as a reprisal move.
India’s Act East Policy is also complimentary to its United States policy. It has come with a stronger engagement with the United States. Since the 1990s after the end of the cold war, India and the United States’ relationship has improved dramatically. A nuclear deal with the United States was signed during Manmohan Singh’s Government in 2008. However, it was the Modi Government that increased its engagement with the United States. Modi had a summit meeting with Obama in 2014 just 4 months after coming to power. Obama also visited India in 2015 to meet Modi. Both countries have signed many important deals such as COMCASA (Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement), LEMOA (Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement), BECA (Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement), MISTA (Maritime Information Sharing Technical Agreement), etc. that have made India get access to the same security system that NATO gets. Most importantly, both countries now have greater geopolitical convergence. During the cold war, India was closer to USSR and the United States was anti-USSR but now both India and the United States have a common enemy and threat to China. Earlier, the United States wanted to focus more on Western Pacific and India, on the other hand, wanted to focus on the Indian Ocean but now they have an Indo-Pacific policy where together with Australia and Japan will focus on Indo-Pacific.
One important thing to note is that India’s commitment to Eastern Region has increased under its Act East Policy but India has deep reservations regarding direct military involvement in the South China Sea to help the United States and South East Asia countries to balance China. Of course, this may change shortly. However, the United States has realised India’s importance in choking Malacca Strait from the Western side. India has also signed a defence cooperation agreement with the United States.
India’s focus on Act East Policy and renewed relations with the United States has come with the foreign policy imperative of improving its focus on the Indian Ocean region. Traditionally India’s focus has been more on land but now it is focusing on the “blue economy” and “Indian Ocean”. Indian Navy’s focus on submarine forces and indigenization, that is, domestic manufacturing of naval equipment has conspicuously increased. India also organized the “International Fleet Review” in 2016 to increase naval cooperation with other countries. India has also launched SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Region) initiative to develop a blue economy and increase maritime cooperation and collective actions in the Indian Ocean region. India has launched this to counter China’s maritime Silk Road Initiative. Indian maritime security strategy released in 2015 confirmed that India focuses on the South-West, Eastern Indian Ocean including the East coast of Africa, the Arabian Sea, the Bay of Bengal, the Andaman Sea, etc. India is also focusing on developing capabilities for small island countries like Mauritius and Seychelles so that they don’t fall prey to China. It is trying to become a net security provider in the Indian Ocean and mostly focuses on the Eastern Indian Ocean. As a part of the Act East Policy India focuses on the Bay of Bengal region, developing connectivity with the Bay of Bengal. India has launched the BIMSTEC (Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Bhutan, and Nepal as members) initiative to improve connectivity and economic relations with the Bay of Bengal countries. India has invested in creating Asian trilateral highways that connect Moreh in Manipur to Mae Sot in Thailand via Myanmar. India has also started to focus on improving maritime connectivity with ASEAN. India is also willing to sign an agreement such as the coastal shipping agreement and express interest in improving ports to increase its trade with Bangladesh and beyond and improve connectivity in the North Eastern region. India has also launched the Sagarmala project to improve its ports. Ports are the drivers of the new-age economy. Hence, India despite having a coastline of 7516.6 km has under-developed ports.
India’s Eastern ports are in much worse conditions than Western ports. India is now privatizing its ports to develop them. It also organized a global maritime summit in 2016 along with South Korea which is a global leader in shipbuilding.
Instead of China, India now prefers Japan to invest in infrastructure in a strategically sensitive region such as the North Eastern region and Andaman and Nicobar Island. It is also supporting Japan’s Bay of Bengal industrial growth-belt initiative to help Bangladesh become a hub in the Bay of Bengal. Enhancing maritime security cooperation with countries in the Bay of Bengal, India has started to focus on increasing naval cooperation with different countries in the Bay of Bengal. India signed a strategic partnership with Singapore in 2015 and revised its defence cooperation agreement for bilateral exercises. India also conducts Milan exercises since 1995 when more than 40 countries joined India with their navies in a multilateral naval exercise. The United States joined Milan for the first time in 2022. India has also started conducting joint navy patrolling and naval exercises with the Indonesian Navy and Royal Thai Navy. India has also signed a white shipping agreement with Thailand.
As a part of the Act East Policy, irrespective of which kind of political system is in power, India has matured to maintain a friendly relationship with Myanmar. This is unlike the past when India broke a relationship with the military junta. Indian and Myanmar Navies now conduct joint bilateral exercises, patrolling India’s Ocean and Myanmar is the only third country after Thailand and Indonesia to sign such an agreement with India. India has also launched a make-in-India initiative to boost India’s defence exports to the Bay of Bengal region. It has started shipping naval equipment to the South East Asian militaries. India has increased naval security cooperation with countries like Vietnam and Bangladesh beyond the South East Asian setup.
Earlier, India was wary of inviting or joining any naval exercises, patrolling, etc. due to its own NAM (Non-Alignment Movement) and also due to the fear of angering China. But now India has accepted its responsibility in the Indian Ocean and it is undertaking a joint exercise with extra-regional powers such as the United States, Japan and Australia under the QUAD initiative. Malabar exercise is done along with QUAD. India is also expanding its naval reach by doing exercises not just in the Indian Ocean but also Western Pacific. India also participated in the US-led exercise in the region such as the multilateral Cobra Gold exercise in Thailand in 2015 and The Rim of the Pacific Ocean Exercise in 2016.
In summation, India has understood the perils and consequences of China’s String of Pearl policy and its Belt and Road Initiative. Hence, India is now taking the role of net security provider thoughtfully by engaging North Eastern Region through connectivity, trade, security and multi-cooperation.