How Modi Is Broadening the Range and Scope of India’s Asia Policy
World Politics Review Q&A
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently visited Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore on a trip to Southeast Asia from May 29 to June 2. Modi secured security and economic agreements in each country and outlined India's vision for the Indo-Pacific in a keynote address at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore. The visit pushed forward Modi's "Act East" policy which aims to enhance India’s relations and strategic involvement in the Asia-Pacific.
Following the visit, I participated in a Q&A with World Politics Review about the key drivers and objectives of Modi's Act East agenda. The Q&A, which is reproduced below, was originally published by World Politics Review.
World Politics Review: What factors gave rise to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “Act East” policy agenda, and what were its diplomatic and economic goals?
Anubhav Gupta: When Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi first spoke of an “Act East” policy at the East Asia Summit in Myanmar in 2014, he wasn’t so much announcing a new policy as much as turbo-charging an old one. Since the 1990s, India has aimed to strengthen its relations with Southeast and East Asia through what was called the “Look East” policy. Modi has accelerated these efforts to better connect India with the East through physical infrastructure projects, trade and investment agreements, and regional institutions.
But this not a mere rebranding exercise. India’s self-conception today of being a rising global power is drastically different than it was in the 1990s, as is many Indians’ newfound desire to access global value chains and the spoils of global commerce. Modi, who personifies this new swagger and drive, has charted a more ambitious course for India on the global stage. The Act East policy is an extension of this trend, with the goal of broadening and deepening India’s ties in the region and positioning it as a key strategic player in the Asia-Pacific for the first time.
The new policy diverges from the old one in three critical and meaningful ways. First, its geographic focus is more expansive. Look East, which originally focused on improving relations with Southeast Asian nations, was broadened in the 2000s to cover key countries in East Asia as well. Act East makes this broader geographic scope explicit. Second, while Look East began as a means to enhance economic relations, Act East has put the economic and strategic spheres on the same footing, elevating the importance of security partnerships and strategic issues to a degree not seen before. Finally, via Act East, India has been more forward-leaning in its friendship with the United States and in its strained competition with China. New Delhi has strategically positioned itself closer to Washington than it had been willing to do in the past. This can be seen through the U.S.-India Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region, as well as through India’s willingness to re-engage in a new quadrilateral dialogue that also includes U.S. treaty allies Japan and Australia. With regard to China, Modi has shown greater willingness to stand up to Beijing and compete with it for influence in the wider region.
WPR: What concrete outcomes has the Act East policy achieved in the four years since it was launched, and to what degree has it delivered in terms of its strategic goals?
Gupta: Though Act East remains a work in progress four years into Modi’s first term, the policy has borne real fruit. On the objective of expanding and deepening its web of ties and influence in the Asia-Pacific, India has been especially successful in strengthening its relationship with Japan. This can be seen in both the economic realm, where Japan has invested billions in Indian infrastructure and development, and in the strategic realm where the two countries finalized a historic civilian nuclear deal and have enhanced their defense partnerships and military exercises. India has also worked hard to improve ties with the Southeast Asian nations closest to it geographically—Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam—to counter China’s campaign to secure stronger ties with India’s neighbors.
And while the United States’ new Indo-Pacific vision lacks specifics, the announcement of the policy and America’s pivot from the Asia-Pacific to the Indo-Pacific concept signify that India plays a more central role in U.S. strategic thinking today than it did four years ago. Given India’s goal of gaining greater recognition as a key strategic player, the U.S. move is a symbolic victory.
The policy has also been successful in making security issues a critical component of India’s engagement with East and Southeast Asia, and positioning India as a more critical strategic player in the region. The evidence for this includes India and Singapore elevating their relationship to a “strategic partnership,” India becoming more active in regional institutions like the East Asia Summit, and its growing cooperation with Southeast Asian countries on counterterrorism and maritime security.
The record isn’t all rosy however. Progress has stalled in two areas that have been priorities since the Look East days: trade and infrastructure connectivity. Though India has rhetorically positioned itself as being more open to trade and economic integration, it has remained a difficult counterpart in trade negotiations, preventing it from securing meaningful trade agreements and stronger economic partnerships with countries in the region. On infrastructure development and connectivity, India and its partner countries have faced repeated delays. The Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project linking India with Myanmar via port and road, for instance, was supposed to be completed in 2014, the year Modi was elected, yet it is unlikely to be finished during his first term.
WPR: What opportunities, in terms of countries and sectors, does India enjoy to further expand its ties with Southeast Asia, and what obstacles stand in the way?
Gupta: Stronger trade ties with ASEAN and better integration into the Asia-Pacific economy overall ought to be a top priority for India given its development needs and its strategic aims. While the administration has acknowledged the importance of these issues, it has failed to take full advantage of the multiple opportunities in front of it.
For instance, while being included in the ASEAN-centered Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, or RCEP, was a major coup for India, New Delhi is seen as one of the actors preventing a swift completion of that agreement. RCEP, which has been under negotiation since 2012, would provide clear economic benefits for India. However, New Delhi’s reluctance to compromise on tariffs and other issues of market access have impeded agreement on a deal. India’s record on trade and economic liberalization is also the reason it remains outside of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, or APEC, forum of 21 Asia-Pacific economies, despite being Asia’s third-largest economy. India would benefit from ensuring that a strong RCEP agreement is completed this year and from assuring partners like the United States that it would be a productive member of APEC.
Finally, China and the United States, which cast long shadows in the Asia-Pacific, also serve as opportunities and obstacles for India in Southeast Asia. Whether and how the U.S. and China resolve their current trade confrontation will certainly inform India’s approach to the region. While most ASEAN countries generally welcome India’s engagement in Southeast Asia, some may be wary of being caught up in a China-India competition for influence in ASEAN, particularly if it extends to territorial disputes in the South China Sea. Meanwhile, the uncertainty introduced by the Trump administration about U.S. leadership in the region and Washington’s commitment to the prevailing regional order could make India less eager to take on regional responsibilities and stand up to China if it does not have faith that the United States will also shoulder the burden.
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