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Modi in Indonesia: From Look East to Act East, India’s policy upgrade

By Shubham

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's ongoing visit to three Southeast Asian nations - Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore - is being seen as a high point of his government's Act East policy, which aims at making the talk over having good relations with the countries east of India's border, including those in Southeast Asia.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, left, walks with Indonesian President Joko Widodo during their meeting at Merdeka Palace in Jakarta, Indonesia

The Act East policy, which was adopted by the Modi government in 2014, is an improvement over the Look East policy which was developed by the PV Narasimha Rao government - which was opening up India's foreign policy horizons besides its economy - in the early 1990s. The Act East policy looks to an effective implementation of the Look East policy especially by cultivating better ties with the Southeast Asian nations through bilateral talks and trade.

Besides, the presence of China as a common concern for India and a number of Southeast Asian nations has made the ground of cooperation more fertile.

In 1992, when the Look East policy was adopted, the global situation was much more different. The Soviet Union had collapsed and the Cold War just got over and India was in need of new friends. The US has not been India's friend traditionally while West Asia was in turmoil after the first Gulf War and thus, the need was to look east to find new allies - especially among the Southeast Asian countries that had the economic potential to deliver. In the early 1990s, six Asean countries were progressing at a brisk pace (they were called the Asian Tigers). India successfully cultivated its ties with the Southeast Asian countries and came up with the upgraded the Look East policy two decades after its adoption into the Act East policy.

Rao's policy gave India good gains - strategically and economically. It became a partner of the Asean in 1992 and then a dialogue partner and member of the Asean Regional Forum in 1996. India and Asean also entered a summit partnership in 2002, a decade after the policy's implementation and started negotiations for a free trade agreement in 2003. This resulted in a bilateral agreement in 2009 which came into effect in 2010.

The bilateral trade between India and Asean grew from $2 billion in 1992 to $12 billion in 2002 to $72 billion in 2012. But the momentum did not continue subsequently and it was then when it became important to even act and not just look east. The US now also felt the need for India's greater engagement with the Asean states to keep its regional rival China at bay and hence pushed for more cooperation between New Delhi and the Asean states.

The Act East policy launched by PM Modi at the East Asia and India India-Asean summits at Nay Pyi Taw in Myanmar in November 2014 has made a decent progress, although there have been questions raised at times over New Delhi's consistency in pursuing the policy.

The Look East policy which India pursues today is not limited to the Asean countries. It now includes engagement with Bangladesh, the immediate eastern neighbour, to even far-off countries like the Koreas and Australia and New Zealand and even small island-states like Fiji. Today, India's Act East policy also has a geopolitical and geostrategic edge as it also forms a part of its China policy against the backdrop of growing competition with Beijing in South Asia, Southeast Asia and East Asia.

The beginning of more joint military drills besides cultural contacts and economic co-operations (like BIMSTEC) has made India's Act East policy more robust than its more preliminary predecessor. Modi has also stressed on India's soft power to harness ties with Asean countries with which India has had relations since the ancient times.

There have also been concerns over some of India's Act East policy - like remaining inactive over the Rohingya oppression in Myanmar while delaying in cultivating ties with Indonesia, the biggest Asean state - but overall, India's Act East policy has been a success.

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