Distinguished Lectures Distinguished Lectures

India's Act East Policy: Gains and Prospects

  • Distinguished Lectures Detail

    By: Amb. (Retd.) Rajiv Bhatia
    Venue: Visva Bharati, Santi Niketan
    Date: April 05, 2019

Repaying a debt

To me, it is a very special privilege to be at this legendary institution of learning. It was created by Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore, the luminary who made modern India conscious of its age-old connections and links with the East, stretching from Burma to China and Japan. Deepening this consciousness, he showed extraordinary vision and vigour to initiate sustainable academic and cultural exchanges among key Asian civilizations, underlining their essential unity and harmony.

Gurudev impacted the young generation of his time, the youth leaders such as Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhash Chandra Bose whose words and work influenced the subsequent generations in India and abroad. Hence this invitation by Visva-Bharati to me to speak on the assigned subject is my chance to repay a small part of the huge debt owed to this institution, and what it represents in the world of ideas. It is most appropriate and timely to attempt an objective evaluation of India's Act East Policy (AEP) at this university today.

On a personal note, I came here once before – in 2005, when I was India's Ambassador to Myanmar.

I became indebted to Visva-Bharati while serving as the DCM in the Indian Embassy in Jakarta, which afforded me the opportunity of appreciating India-Indonesia connections through the poems of Gurudev. As Director General of the Indian Council of World Affairs during 2012-15, I helped in raising the awareness of the importance of our North East region in India's engagement with ASEAN, through various measures, including by leveraging the useful work being done by Asian Confluence, a think tank based in Shillong. For the past three years, Gateway House, the premier think tank based in Mumbai, has greatly facilitated my work as an interpreter of developments in the Indo-Pacific region. Finally, Kalinga International Foundation, a think tank based in Bhubaneswar and Delhi, gave me the opportunity last year and this March to undertake two serious policy trips covering five ASEAN nations – Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Laos and Cambodia, which enabled me to secure new insights.

Against this backdrop, I am delighted to present to you my evaluation, free from any bias, adopting a larger historical perspective and reflecting on where we have come from, where we are at present, and where we may be heading in the future.

Journey through history

Two misconceptions need to be dispelled at the outset: that India always looked westwards, a tendency that became all-powerful during the British period; and that India's Look East Policy began in the early 1990s when Prime Minister Narasimha Rao embarked on a totally new path in relations with the Southeast Asia. Even a cursory reading of history shows that India's links – cultural, commercial, and people-to-people – level go back to several millennia, and much of this interaction was a broadly two-way traffic. Secondly, Mr. Narasimha Rao, a great scholar who spoke several languages, articulated and crafted a policy for his time that began right at the advent of India's independence or, in fact, even before it. In a research paper written for ISAS several years back, Professor S.D. Muni spoke of the "four waves” of the engagement with the East. In my lecture at the Jindal University in September 2018, I delineated"six phases” in the evolution of the nation’s outreach to the East.

In this, it is noteworthy that in their recent book entitled India's Eastward Engagement: From Antiquity to Act East Policy, Professor Muni and Dr. Rahul Mishra have definitively traced the evolution of this phenomenon through its "seven distinct phases or waves.” These are:

1) Ancient Hindu-Buddhist influence,

2) Islamic wave,

3) British era as the third wave, which was effectively countered by the wavelet in the form of freedom struggle,

4) Nehru period,

5) The post-Nehru phase (1962-1990),

6) Look East Policy (LEP), and

7) Act East Policy (2014- )

From LEP to AEP: why the shift?

To fully comprehend the reasons behind this shift and to grasp the nature and range of the Act East Policy, there is a need to recall what triggered the Look East Policy, how it performed, and the stage it had reached by the middle of the current decade when many felt that the time was ripe for a further switch, upgradation or reorientation.

Scholars agree that a blend of economic and strategic factors lay behind the formulation and adoption of the Look East Policy. It did not happen one fine day; rather the policy line was developed gradually and in a pragmatic manner. It was the external face of the coin which internally revolved around the policy of economic liberalization. India needed foreign investment and technology. ASEAN was viewed as a fertile and apt source for it.

This regional grouping assumed a larger space on India's radar as our nation, confronting the challenge of the end of the Cold War and America’s unipolar moment, looked for new partnerships in Southeast Asia. Further, the urgent need to address the impact of insurgency in the North East, which had close linkages with the situation in western Myanmar, required New Delhi to shift from a pro-democracy policy to "a dual track policy” (of befriending the military junta while continuing support for democratic forces) in Myanmar.

Finally, ASEAN too was attracted by the potential of the Indian market that was getting opened. In addition, it was also driven by its own strategic compulsions to seek a balance in the region to China's rising power by engaging with India in an enhanced manner.

Two decades of the practice of LEP secured many gains in the form of new institutional arrangements, agreements, and regular forms of engagement and cooperation between India and ASEAN. Attempts were also made to deepen relationships with the stakeholders beyond ASEAN such as China, Japan and South Korea. The 2012 India-ASEAN Commemorative Summit celebrated the first decade of the summit-level partnership between India and ASEAN. However, in the last few years of the policy, there was a growing perception that India needed to try harder, and that ASEAN too needed to invest more in the India relationship. This essentially was the driver behind the switch from LEP to AEP.

Differences between LEP and AEP

Both schools – those who argue that there is no difference between the two policies and those who maintain that AEP is a totally new policy – seem to be off the mark. To me, the objective reality is that there are significant differences; AEP is a new, distinct stage of the policy towards the East, which began before 2014. Therefore, whether AEP is a mere progression or a leap forwardcan be debated as long as one identifies the changes that were brought about in a conscious and sustained manner.

It is necessary to refer to at least five differences between LEP and AEP, as below:

AEP focuses on covering a wider area than just ASEAN. This now fits in well with the change of narrative from East Asia to the Indo-Pacific.

It lays greater emphasis on defence and security cooperation with the nations of the East than before, without relenting on the classic triad of "commerce, culture and connectivity” i.e. the socio-economic-cultural cooperation.

The policy’s stronger focus on the role of the North East Region in building relations with ASEAN, especially its CLMV component, is acknowledged widely. In this context, questions such as the place of Bangladesh in AEP, the understandable tendency to view Myanmar both as an immediate neighbour and a Southeast Asian nation, and the enhanced investment in BIMSTEC as a platform of choice for regional integration are issues that may be of special interest to this audience.

The replacement of the word ‘Look’ by ‘Act’ sent out an important signal of a higher level of activism and action-oriented approach.

Political relations, especially at the leadership level, received a higher priority than in the past. As a result, AEP acquired a much larger profile as a sub-set of the Indian foreign policy than was the case in the preceding years.

Gains and the road ahead

In a nutshell, of the three main pillars of AEP, the political pillar covering strategic, political, defence and security cooperation stands strengthened today. The India-ASEAN Commemorative Summit of January 2018 symbolised it.Convergence of perspectives as well as the increase in the number and range of agreements, exchange of visits, holding of naval exercises, supply of equipment, training programmes etc. confirm this trend. There is considerable clarity about India's Indo-Pacific vision, even though it differs, to some degree, from that of the other Quad partners – U.S., Japan and Australia. Increasing proximity of views between India and certain ASEAN nations – Indonesia, Singapore and Vietnam – is particularly noteworthy.

The economic pillar has received much attention and nurturing. A whole lot of efforts have been made to increase trade, investment, connectivity and tourism. Development partnership has also received sustained attention. However, it is observed that the economic pillar needs a greater push and time before it attains its full potential.

The third pillar of socio-cultural cooperation has been gaining in strength. Its promotion is largely driven by governments. It can do with greater activism by a plethora of institutions and stakeholders that go under the rubric of ‘Third Space.’ It should also be noted that the East is in a strategic flux. Hence AEP has to be resilient in its strategic orientation. This partly explains policy swings from Inclusivity (represented by the East Asia Summit) to the Quad and from the Quad to Inclusivity (enunciated by the Indian PM in his Shangri-La Dialogue).


Here are some of the tentative conclusions from our continuing study of the Act East Policy, which indicate the directions it could take as we probably move to AEP 2.0:

LEP-AEP has performed reasonably well, but optimal results are still awaited.

ASEAN’s perceptions: its member-states want more, not less, of India's engagement, but they do not respond adequately to New Delhi’s initiatives. Why?

North East: sharply enhance its engagement with New Delhi and the region – recent developments are promising.

Eastern India – this too needs to be involved more closely as per ‘the Kalinga vision’, promoted by some institutions.

Inclusion of Bangladesh is both essential and desirable: the vision of the ‘Bay of Bengal Community’ and BIMSTEC.

Expansion of the involvement of Business, Youth, Universities, Think Tanks, Media and Civil Society is highly desirable.