The marriage of India’s Act East Policy and Indo-Pacific Policy

by Ryan Mitra

Modi and asean leaders

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and ASEAN heads of state and government. Presidential Communications Operations Office, Philippines, via Wikimedia Commons

India has rapidly turned itself into a maritime powerhouse in its littorals and in the Indian Ocean Region. Acting as the region’s natural ‘security provider’, India’s rendition of the Monroe Doctrine, the so-called Indira Doctrine, has been the major lens through which it views the geopolitics of South Asia. Even though the interpretation of this doctrine has changed over time and has adapted to contemporary developments in international relations, India still continues to base its foreign policy on conducive bilateral relations and the non-compartmentalisation of Asia by foreign powers. As seen in its opposition to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and hesitance over the US-led Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, India continues to believe that Asia’s politics needs to be rid of hegemonic structures. It thus has two principal policies that drive its Asian outreach: the Act East Policy and Indo-Pacific Policy.

The Act East Policy

India’s Look East Policy was formulated after the liberalisation of the economy in the 1990s. Moving away from its longstanding posture during the Cold War, it actively pursued bilateral engagement and multilateral forums in South East Asia, in order to adapt to the rapidly changing dimensions of international relations. This, under the Modi administration, evolved into a more ‘pragmatic and proactive’ approach to its ‘extended neighbourhood’: the Act East Policy.

On the domestic front, the policy has enabled economic fluidity and exchange of goods with South East Asia, a deeper economic connection and flow of investments. With initiatives such as Make In India and urban renewal projects – smart cities, digital connectivity and efficient transport networks – India has opened its shores to foreign direct investments and people-to-people exchanges in different sectors. On the bilateral front, the Modi administration, in its first term, actively pursued stronger bilateral interactions with all Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) states to create a more concrete base on which to formulate a wide spectrum of agreements. Finally, on the multilateral front, New Delhi has attempted to build on the economic frontier with ASEAN. In 2017–2019, India’s imports from ASEAN countries totalled $47,133 million, 10% of all its imports. It has actively pursued projects with members of the multilateral forum with a focus on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and small and medium-sized enterprises. India is eager to finalise the agreement by the end of 2019 but its main reservation is the impending increase in the trade deficit to China.

In regards to industrial projects, India has actively looked to integrate its north east with ASEAN to allow more economic growth in that region, but the political realities of these countries may soon be shared by India due to their impacting India’s interests and assets beyond its borders. By establishing transnational highways and multimodal ports, New Delhi envisages that the free flow of commerce in that region will improve the dire conditions in those states. Secretary (East) Vijay Thakur Singh welcomed the study on the trilateral highway between India, Myanmar and Thailand, and its extension to Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. Furthermore, the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project is integral to India’s integration in South East Asia, but political issues in Myanmar along with rising extremism pose a constant threat to the project and India’s interests. In April 2019, there was an attack on a transport vessel by insurgents from the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army.

The Indo-Pacific Policy

Prima facie, the term ‘Indo-Pacific’ encompasses all states from Djibouti to the Pacific island countries of Fiji and New Zealand, including Japan in the East. India’s policy for the Indo-Pacific is quite clear: to promote regional cooperation with ASEAN and the Indian Ocean Rim Association, inclusiveness, openness, a rule-based approach and ASEAN centrality. The linking of the Indian and Pacific oceans is related to the domino theory: the developments in one region directly impact the other. Therefore, an umbrella policy framework that tackles maritime security and safety issues is a prudent action taken by New Delhi.

The current shortcoming of this policy is the ambiguity around which countries constitute the Indo-Pacific according to India’s foreign policy. Vietnam has noted that India continues to use Indo-Pacific and Indo-Asia-Pacific interchangeably in its literature, while recognising different countries under each. A constituted definition of what India envisions as the Indo-Pacific would further facilitate the role it plays in various spheres of its foreign policy vis-à-vis all the constituting states. This ambiguity has led to confusion over what India’s take is in the statements it had made regarding this policy. New Delhi has reiterated Japan’s called for a ‘free and open’ Indo-Pacific, and countries like Singapore, Indonesia, the Maldives and ASEAN as a whole agree with India’s vision of this regional structure. But the role of this structure in the region’s geopolitics is still subject to differences. Certain ASEAN countries see the Indo-Pacific Policy as rivalling China’s BRI, or as the bedrock on which the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue will finally take shape. The latter continues to be complicated for India as the very existence of the dialogue goes against its fundamental doctrine of non-compartmentalisation/anti-bloc arrangements in Asia. Furthermore, considering the multilateral nature of the hypothetical arrangement, India will have little to no control over the perception of such a structure by its natural adversary, China, even though all constituting states have repeatedly stated that it does not exist in a linear game-theory scenario to oppose the East Asian giant.

The marriage

Principally, the Indo-Pacific Policy is being implemented to promote maritime safety and security from traditional and non-traditional threats. Today, the latter have become a chronic phenomenon, thus requiring more attention from policy makers at home and abroad. Non-traditional threats include maritime terrorism, piracy and Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR). India is an active participant in providing rapid HADR to countries that lie over the Pacific Ring of Fire, namely Indonesia. Considering how globalised the region has become due to the Malacca Strait, it is in India’s interests to constitute a multilateral arrangement with other prominent countries to establish a benign maritime network that allows a faster response time to the chronic natural disasters that occur there. The One ASEAN One Response document by ASEAN is an agenda for India to pursue in future meetings. Piracy in South East Asia continues to be the highest in the world, increasing in 2017 after a steady decrease in preceding years. The Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against ships is the institution overseeing the safety of mercantile ships passing through South East Asian waters. India currently has an officer posted in Singapore to report to and coordinate with institution, showing clear support for ASEAN’s efforts against piracy. It is in India’s maritime interests to push, with multiple ASEAN countries, for specific maritime exercises directed towards anti-piracy. Considering India has already displayed its prowess in undertaking anti-piracy missions in the Gulf of Aden, it is a credible and suitable extra-regional partner. India’s growing bonhomie on the bilateral level with Singapore, both states having agreed on the exchange of naval logistics at multiple ports including the Changi Naval Base in the disputed South China Sea, is a suitable entry point for the South Asian country to pursue such objectives.

Governance of international and regional law is cardinal for maintaining the peace and security of the region. Noting ASEAN’s centrality, India’s Indo-Pacific interests trickle down to maintaining the freedom of transit and exploration in South East Asia, especially the chokepoints and South China Sea. The South China Sea dispute, though beyond its primary sphere of interest, is integral to India’s larger maritime ambitions. The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) has been a fundamental conversation point ever since the inception of this dispute, and India has repeatedly stated and displayed its confidence in and support for the convention. Having abided by the instrument in the past during its maritime dispute with Bangladesh, India has set a strong precedent regarding its commitment to international law. In response to China’s rejection of the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s ruling on the Philippines’ case against it, India adopted a nuanced stance, not overtly denouncing China’s position altogether but underscoring the larger principle at play: the need for open Sea Lanes of Communications in the South China Sea, and abidance with international instruments.

This hedging behaviour has allowed India to move around in a quasi-neutral space, but does not allow it to formidably establish itself as an equal participant in the instrument. Abidance with existing norms does not translate into a concrete international position if the state fails to hold other states accountable to the same standard, despite the rhetoric of ‘abidance by all’ in its foreign policy. Furthermore, in the case of Vietnam calling upon Indian investors to invest in oil and gas fields in its exclusive economic zone, which lies in the disputed parts of the South China Sea, China’s objection is the most troublesome issue that India faces. The existing stake of ONGC Videsh Ltd in block no 128 in Vietnam was under immense pressure from China, and ultimately the Indian firm requested a swap of blocks, hurting Vietnam’s case and tacit control in the dispute. This trend of vehement Chinese objections is a warning of things to come. China trying to enclose the sea around its littorals and its self-proclaimed ‘natural territory’ for itself is fundamentally against India’s stance on high seas. It also hampers India’s initiative of engaging in bilateral economic and infrastructural projects with ASEAN countries.  

About the author

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Ryan Mitra is studying International Relations at Pandit Deendayal Petroleum University, India. His primary areas of interest are Indian foreign policy, maritime affairs, Asian geopolitics and International Law.

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