Partnership

Friends in the East

Issue 04, 2019

author

Anil Wadhwa

Friends in the East

Anil Wadhwa |author

Issue 04, 2019


India’s Act East Policy focusses on the extended neighbourhood in the Asia-Pacific region. The policy, which was originally conceived as an economic initiative, has gained new political, strategic and cultural dimensions. Former ambassador Anil Wadhwa explains the recent changes

In the early 1990s, India introduced the Look East Policy, which was transformed in 2015 to an Act East Policy that is meant to serve the twin purposes of stronger commercial links with the region and other Indo-Pacific countries and to create development opportunities for the Indian Northeast. The three Cs of Commerce, Culture and Connectivity – have been the pillars of India’s Act East Policy. Over the years, India has made giant strides with regard to the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) and its related frameworks like the ARF (Asean Regional Forum) , EAS (East Asia Summit) and ADMM+ (ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting Plus) and also with countries further East, including Japan, South Korea, Australia and the Pacific islands. This advance is commonly called as the Act Far East and has been extended to Russia and the far east. From a dialogue partner in 1996, India has graduated to a summit level partner in 2002, and to a Strategic Partner of ASEAN in 2012. Today, India is engaged in at least 30 high level dialogues in varied fields with ASEAN.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi with other heads of state at the 16th India-ASEAN Summit in Bangkok

India needs deeper economic integration with ASEAN and needs to engage it actively, since it is a grouping of USD 1.85 billion and possesses a GDP of USD 3.8 trillion. ASEAN has invested USD 68.91 billion between April 2000 to March 2018 into India, and India has invested USD 36.67 billion in ASEAN between 2007 and 2015. India and the rest of ASEAN as well as the other five ASEAN partners – China, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea and Japan – are involved in a modern, comprehensive, high quality, and mutually beneficial Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).

India is pushing for quick completion of the trilateral

highway connecting the country with Myanmar and Thailand

A key aspect of improving the economic relationship is improving connectivity – through land, sea, and air – between India and ASEAN . India would do well to speed up the construction of the trilateral highway that will connect India, Myanmar and Thailand, and will later expand into Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. A USD 1 billion credit line has been announced by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2015 to enhance digital and infrastructure connectivity with ASEAN. The trilateral highway is expected to open in 2020 and efforts are on to put in place the soft infrastructure required for the successful opening. Sea links are also vital between the eastern sea board of India, including ports of Ennore and Chennai to CMLV countries – Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam – and there is also a need to improve trans-shipment links with partner nations like Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and Thailand. While flight connections from tier 1 and tier 2 cities in India are well established with Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia and now Indonesia, many countries in Asia still lack direct links or have inadequate linkages with India. This is an impediment to tourism, as well as trade. India and ASEAN therefore, need to work towards an ASEAN-India air services agreement to benefit trade, investments and tourism.

 

India is also looking to partner ASEAN in enhancing blue economy cooperation, including

investing in the development of desalination technologies and harvesting bio diversity

India is also looking to partner ASEAN in enhancing blue economy cooperation, – investing in the development of desalination technologies, harvesting bio diversity and the search/excavation of marine minerals in the seas. India is setting up coastal surveillance networks and constantly enhancing the capacity for shared Maritime Domain Awareness with its partners. India carries out maritime exercises with Singapore, Australia and the Indian navy also conducts the Milan (friendship) exercises with the navies of the Indian ocean region in Andaman and Nicobar islands. India has also set up a Green Fund with ASEAN, which can help in undertaking cooperative projects in climate impact mitigation. In 2016, the corpus of the fund meant for enhancing Science and Technology collaboration with ASEAN was enhanced by India to USD 5 million.

Vijay Thakur Singh (third from right), secretary (East) for the MEA, attends the 11th Mekong Ganga Cooperation Senior Officials’ Meeting in New Delhi recently

Currently, India promotes the centrality and capability of ASEAN in the region; aims to strengthen BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) in order to promote cooperation in the Bay of Bengal; and engages with the Mekong Ganga Cooperation group, to promote greater linkages between itself and the IndoChina sub-region. The Forum for India and the Pacific Island States (FIPIC) has been set up in 2014. India provides USD 200,000 each year on a roll over basis to each of the 14 island states who are members of FIPIC for developmental projects.region. PM Modi, at the Shangri-La Dialogue ( an inter-governmental security forum) in May 2018, called for a free, open and an inclusive Indo-Pacific, based on the rule of law. India can work with Quad countries on infrastructure projects by pooling resources. India could use its niche area of information technology to power customs and risk management. India and Japan could partner with other governments or the private sector to mitigate risk and shorten lead times in the region. In November 2018, an infrastructure initiative in Australia worth AUD 2 billion aimed at the Pacific was also unveiled by the Australian government. It will use grant funding, combined with loans to support the development of high priority infrastructure projects.

In future, India will have to be nimble and quick in completing its connectivity projects with ASEAN. The country will also have to develop strong defence, political, cultural, and socio-economic ties, and create interdependencies with countries of the region and keep its neighbourhood secure, its sea lanes of communication open, and ensure a stable and peaceful external environment for its own economic development.

The Indian Navy conducts friendly exercises with navies of the

countries of the Indian Ocean region in Andaman and Nicobar islands

A notable development in the region is the revival of the informal grouping of the Quad – comprising India, Japan, Australia, and the United States- to coordinate positions in the Indo Pacificregion. PM Modi, at the Shangri-La Dialogue ( an inter-governmental security forum) in May 2018, called for a free, open and an inclusive Indo-Pacific, based on the rule of law. India can work with Quad countries on infrastructure projects by pooling resources. India could use its niche area of information technology to power customs and risk management. India and Japan could partner with other governments or the private sector to mitigate risk and shorten lead times in the region. In November 2018, an infrastructure initiative in Australia worth AUD 2 billion aimed at the Pacific was also unveiled by the Australian government. It will use grant funding, combined with loans to support the development of high priority infrastructure projects.

A key aspect of improving the economic relationship is improving

connectivity – through land, sea, and air – between India and ASEAN

The heads of state at the 35th ASEAN Summit in Bangkok, Thailand on November 3

In future, India will have to be nimble and quick in completing its connectivity projects with ASEAN. The country will also have to develop strong defence, political, cultural, and socio-economic ties, and create interdependencies with countries of the region and keep its neighbourhood secure, its sea lanes of communication open, and ensure a stable and peaceful external environment for its own economic development.

Anil Wadhwa

Anil Wadhwa has served as the Indian Ambassador to Italy, Poland, Oman and Thailand. A member of the Indian Foreign Service from July 1, 1979 to May 31, 2017, Wadhwa has served at the Indian missions in Hong Kong, Beijing, Geneva, Warsaw, Muscat, Bangkok and Rome. He is currently a Senior Fellow and Cluster Leader at the Vivekananda International Foundation in New Delhi.
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