From Look East to Act East: Transitions in India’s Eastward Engagement


India’s “Look East Policy”, rechristened as the “Act East Policy” by Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) Government,1 has been lauded as the country’s most successful foreign policy initiative taken in the past two decades.2 Modi expanded its scope and focus after sensing that Phase I and Phase II of the “Look East Policy” could not achieve their fullest potential, despite being success stories. Through the “Act East Policy”, India is not only striving to engage ASEAN member countries, but also the countries of the wider Asia-Pacific region in political, strategic, cultural, and economic domains. This is manifested in ongoing attempts to strengthen ties with Australia, Japan, and South Korea among others. Modi’s Japan and Australia tours may be seen as steps in that direction.

The swiftly changing security dynamics of the Asia-Pacific region have overarching influence on the countries of the region, and India has not remained aloof from them. China’s extraordinary ascendance to the world stage and its gradually intensifying competition with the United States and Japan have led to tectonic shifts in Asia-Pacific politics. US Rebalancing towards Asia, Japan’s Democratic Security Diamond, and China’s Maritime Silk Road all have political-strategic grand-designs to shape the regional architecture in their own way. In that context, India’s greater role and participation in stabilizing the security architecture of the region is pivotal.

High-level visits and high-octane announcements

Though Modi took office just a half-year ago in May 2014, he has been prompt in undertaking foreign visits to highlight the key aspects of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government’s foreign policy. His successful visit to the United States and meeting with President Barak Obama, visits to Japan, Myanmar, Australia, and Fiji, and the visits of Prime Minister Tony Abbott and President Xi Jinping to India are seen as high points in the Modi’s government’s foreign policy towards the region.

Tony Abbott’s successful India visit and Modi’s visit “down under” to participate in the G-20 Summit in Brisbane are arguably the watershed events in India’s relations with its antipodean neighbor. The G20 summit also provided India an opportunity to sit at the economic high table. Abbott visited India from September 4 to 5, 2014. In return, Modi went to Australia from November 14 to 18; becoming the first Indian prime minister to do so in 28 years. The civilian nuclear cooperation agreement, much debated in Australia and much awaited in India, is a big boost to India’s attempts to meet its energy requirements in coming years.3 In the joint statement signed in September, the two sides welcomed the inking of the agreement as a “concrete symbol” of the bilateral relationship.4 Apart from the civilian nuclear deal, likely to take operational shape by 2015, Indian companies are working towards joint energy ventures in Australia, focusing on coal mining and oil and gas exploration. The five action plans signed in November 2008 with the Ministries of Power, Coal, Petroleum and Natural Gas, Mines, and New and Renewable Energy are the building blocks to take forward the bilateral engagement in the energy sector.5

During Modi’s Australia visit, the landmark “Framework for Security Cooperation between India and Australia” was also signed.6 This ambitious framework has 32 actionable points organized under seven headings.7 The two sides pledged to hold annual summits involving the prime ministers and regular dialogues at the ministerial level. They also agreed to hold regular bilateral maritime exercises and close cooperation in counter-terrorism—arrangements in line with India’s engagement with Japan. It is worth noting that the first-ever India-Australia bilateral naval exercise will be held in 2015. While both countries categorize it as an exercise against non-traditional security threats, not surprisingly, some in the Australian media perceive it as “a hedge against China’s growing military power.”8 According to The Age:


This security “framework” ranks alongside Australia’s deepening “quasi-alliance” with Japan; Japan’s rapidly tightening military ties with India, and the strengthening collaboration of all three countries with the United States. It is the fourth and final cornerstone of a US-anchored democratic security “diamond”, to use the old Japanese wording of an idea that rose and collapsed six years ago in the face of Chinese pressure, but has effectively been resurrected.9


However, it is still too early to establish that the emerging Indo-Australian and Indo-Japan ties are aimed against any third country or whether such exercises will be able to bolster their joint military capabilities against the perceived “China threat.”

As India’s “gateway to Southeast Asia,” Myanmar has always occupied a significant place in India’s foreign policy. Not surprisingly, the Modi government has left no stone unturned to prove that point. During Sushma Swaraj’s visit to Myanmar to attend three multilateral meetings—the ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting, ASEAN Regional Forum, and East Asia Summit Foreign Ministers Meeting—in August 2014, India’s revived vigor in forging closer ties with the region was witnessed. As Myanmar is the ASEAN chair this year, Modi paid a visit from November 14 to 15 to attend the East Asia Summit (EAS) in Naypyidaw. That was not only his first ASEAN-driven multilateral engagement as prime minister, but also his first visit to the ASEAN region. Modi had a bilateral meeting with President Thein Sein, who termed India and Myanmar “brother countries.” A similar term, Pauk Phaw (sibling), was used for China-Myanmar relations in the past when China came to the rescue of Myanmar when it was facing an international diplomatic boycott after the 8888 incident and brutal suppression of the democratic movement.10

Enhancing connectivity is particularly important for India because Myanmar is strategically located at the tri-junction of China, India, and Southeast Asia, and shares a more than 1600 kilometer border with India. The Modi government is trying to expedite the completion of the India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway, part of Asian Highway 1, which aims to connect India with the Mekong sub-region to facilitate people-to-people contacts and improve trade and investment ties. Delhi-Bodh Gaya-Yangon direct flights are to be commenced soon, as is Imphal-Mandalay bus service. Departing from Delhi, a Mumbai direct flight to Ho Chi Minh City is a recent breakthrough in connectivity with Vietnam. Yet, several Southeast Asian capitals are still not directly connected with major Indian cities.

Friendly relations with Myanmar are crucial for peace and development of India’s Northeastern states, which are infested with insurgents. The ongoing political transition and domestic uncertainties, especially with regard to the 2015 general elections, pose new challenges for Myanmar as well as for its neighbors, including India and Thailand. India needs a contingency plan, as any instability in Myanmar will affect neighboring Indian states that share borders and ethnic connections with Myanmar’s Kachin, Sagaing, and Chin states.11 Modi’s meetings with both Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi indicate that India is proactively engaging both the Sein government and the NLD (National League for Democracy) led opposition to ensure peace and stability in Myanmar. India’s balanced approach is likely to strengthen its benign power image and accrue diplomatic dividends in the future.12 Unlike his predecessor, Dr. Manmohan Singh, Modi did meet the pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar and appreciated her attempts to bring Myanmar back to the democratic path.

Modi’s four-day Japan visit in early September, his first-ever state visit as prime minister to a country outside the Indian subcontinent, was also high on big announcements and agreements. (Modi’s visit was preceded by Xi Jinping’s first India visit.) During the visit, the Indo-Japan relationship was elevated from “strategic partnership” to “special strategic and global partnership.” Other major takeaways were: Japan’s announcement to double its private and public investment in India to 34 billion dollars and Modi’s observations on the South China Sea dispute. Referring to the “expansionist” tendency among some countries, which “encroach” upon the seas of others, he directed his response towards an increasingly assertive China that is locked in a maritime dispute with Japan.13

Within a few months of assuming office, Modi started recalibrating the “Look East Policy” to transform it into the “Act East Policy” without undermining the essence and achievements of the former. In his address at the India-ASEAN Summit, Modi said: “A new era of economic development, industrialization and trade has begun in India. Externally, India’s ‘Look East Policy’ has become ‘Act East Policy’.”14 In that regard, the statement made by Sushma Swaraj during her visit to Vietnam on August 26, 2014, is also noteworthy. She addressed the Indian heads of missions and said that India has to not just “Look East” but “Act East.” That her Vietnam visit was the third trip to a Southeast Asian country since she assumed the office of External Affairs minister signals the high priority the Modi government accords to the region.15

To bolster India’s greater role in the security architecture of the region, she reiterated Modi’s idea that “Five Ts” are essential to make India a superpower. These are: tradition, talent, tourism, trade, and technology. She also emphasized greater land, sea, and air links between India and Southeast Asian countries besides talking of institution-to-institution and people-to-people linkages. In her inaugural address at the third Roundtable of the ASEAN-India Network of Think-Tanks in Hanoi, she underscored the salience of greater trade and investment linkages between India and ASEAN and emphasized the need to accelerate the ongoing integration of the economic space between India and the countries of the region.16

Deeper defense cooperation with Vietnam, Singapore, and Indonesia is gaining prominence in India’s policy. For instance, India-Indonesia coordinated patrols (IND-INDO-CORPAT) are now elevated to joint bilateral exercises,17 and, as noted above, India and Australia will hold their first-ever bilateral naval exercises in 2015. During her Vietnam visit, Swaraj held discussions on greater defense cooperation with the top Vietnam leaders, which were brought to the next level with President Pranab Mukherjee’s Vietnam visit in September. Vietnam is keen to procure the Brahmos missiles, jointly produced by India and Russia. India is increasingly seen as a potential security provider in the region, and supplying Brahmos to Vietnam may be a stepping-stone towards solidifying that role. Modi’s vision of robust R&D in the defense sector, indigenization of the defense industry, inviting more FDI in defense, and collaboration with Japan, Israel, Singapore, the United States, and Vietnam would put India in the league of the major military powers of the region. India’s 100 million dollar line of credit to Vietnam is another significant development in the defense sector.

During the visits of Swaraj and Mukherji, the two sides discussed further steps regarding Vietnam’s oil blocks, which Vietnam had offered to India during the visit of Secretary General of the Vietnamese Communist Party Nguyen Phu Trong in November 2013. If their plans fall in place, New Delhi and Hanoi would move forward in energy cooperation after the Indian state-owned OVL (ONGC Videsh Ltd) submits a feasibility study report to the Indian government. That India-Vietnam energy cooperation is strengthening is substantiated by Vietnam’s decision to renew India’s lease of two oil blocks in the South China Sea for another year.

During the ASEAN and EAS meetings in Myanmar, nuances of Modi’s policy on the South China Sea issue were also underscored; India is seemingly getting vocal about its stand on the South China Sea dispute. Acquiring more oil blocks off the Vietnam coast signals its firm belief that the South China Sea is international waters and its energy diplomacy in the Southeast Asia will be guided by “enlightened self-interest” without being affected by “fear” or “favor.” By pointing towards China’s infrastructure projects in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK), India has made it clear that China should first follow its idea of non-involvement of a third party in a disputed territory before advising India to stay away from Vietnam’s oil blocks.18 India has been maintaining that peaceful resolution of the maritime dispute is the only option for China and the ASEAN member states, and that “no such issue should be resolved through conflict and war but through peaceful dialogue.”19 In his address at the ninth EAS, Modi remarked:


In a world of inter-dependence and globalization, there is no option but to follow international laws and norms. This also applies to maritime security. For this reason, following international law and norms is important for peace and stability in South China Sea as well. This also includes the 1982 UN Convention on Law of the Sea, which should be the basis for resolving disputes peacefully. We also hope that the efforts to conclude a Code of Conduct on South China Sea by a process of consensus would be successful soon.20


Modi’s statement signals that like the United States, India is of the view that China should abide by international norms, thereby contributing to the existing international system. Notably, major claimants in the dispute such as the Philippines and Vietnam consider India as another effective counterbalance against China’s assertive postures in the South China Sea. Therefore, India is widely envisaged to be a major power and one of the key stakeholders in the emerging East Asian security dynamics.21 This very well complements the evolving “Act East Policy.” The United States has also been prodding India to get more actively involved in East Asian security dynamics.22

From “Look East” to “Act East”

Though India’s comprehensive engagement with the region started with the “Look East Policy,” historical evidence, both oral and written, shows that India has not only been “Looking East” for the past two millennia, it has also engaged the East during this period, albeit intermittently.23 During the freedom struggle, Indian leaders actively empathized and engaged with the Southeast Asian countries that were fighting against the colonial powers. India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru organized and celebrated “Southeast Asia Day” at Lucknow on October 24, 1945 and expressed solidarity with Indonesia.24 Subsequently, the relationship gathered momentum, with Nehru playing a key role in developing Asian solidarity. However, geographical proximity and cultural linkages could not sustain the systemic and sub-systemic pressures from international politics. Consequently, robust interactions of the immediate post-colonial period faded over time, leading to decades of mutual neglect. India did not figure much on ASEAN’s strategic radar and vice versa.

The end of the Cold War, tied with the rise of globalization and regionalism in international politics, influenced the foreign policies of countries across the world. India is no exception. While it revived its engagement with Southeast Asian countries, the latter fashioned themselves as a unit to a great extent, shedding historical baggage in the process. With the initiation of the “Look East Policy” in 1992, India also overcame diplomatic frictions emanating from the Cambodian crisis and Cold War politics. As India began to move towards the ASEAN region through the “Look East Policy,” it was explained as:

…not merely an external economic policy, it was also a strategic shift in India’s vision of the world and India’s place in the evolving global economy. Most of all, it was about reaching out to our civilizational Asian neighbors in Southeast Asia and East Asia.25

ASEAN has also provided a multitude of opportunities through numerous forums, which have led to the strengthening of dialogue and mutual understanding among the countries of the region, facilitating management of relations in the East Asian region.26 From Sectoral Dialogue Partner in 1992, India graduated to full Dialogue Partner status in December 1999. In 2002, the relationship was further elevated with the convening of the India-ASEAN Summit in 2002 in Phnom Penh. In 2005, India joined the EAS despite Chinese reservations. In 2012, commemorating the tenth Anniversary of the India-ASEAN Summit, the two sides signed the Strategic Partnership agreement, which strengthened the relationship further.27

India-ASEAN trade stood at 79 billion dollars in 2013 with a goal of 200 billion dollars by 2020. Finalization of the India-ASEAN FTA in goods was a stepping-stone towards India’s economic integration into the ASEAN region. After several rounds of negotiations, India and the 10-member countries of ASEAN signed an FTA in services and investments on September 8, 2014. Its implementation is expected to give much-needed impetus to trade and investment relations. The UPA (United Progressive Alliance) government was criticized for signing an incomplete FTA (only in goods, not services), which proved detrimental to India’s business interests. As a result, in the past few years, while India’s exports remained insignificant, imports from ASEAN countries increased substantially.

On the FTA in services, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Thailand took several months to set things right domestically. In fact, the Philippines has yet to ratify the agreement, fearing that the Indian services sector might dominate the ASEAN services sector. As this is implemented, however, India’s share in total trade will rise, making the India-ASEAN FTA a “win-win situation.” For India, the FTA in services holds prominence since it includes an annexure on movement of natural persons or workforce. The annexure defines business visitors and contractual service suppliers—issues that are critically important for India. Other key issues such as domestic regulations, recognition, market access, national treatment, transparency, participation of developing countries, joint committee on services, and dispute settlement and denial of benefits are also included in the agreement.28

Completion of the India-ASEAN FTA would pave the way to the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which includes ASEAN members and its six partner countries.29 With its realization, India is likely to gain preferential market access to 15 countries and gain substantially from price competitiveness.30 For India, RCEP is a tool to achieve its goal of integrating with the East Asian economies and gaining access to a vast regional market from Japan to Australia. This is important, as India is not a member of APEC or TPP.31 RCEP has the potential to beef up India’s trade volume with countries of the region, including China and Japan. India’s services sector, information technology, telecommunications, business process outsourcing (BPOs), knowledge process outsourcing (KPOs) and other skilled services, such as banking, are particularly likely to accrue benefits from RCEP.32

Given India’s buoyant economic performance and strategic footprints in the region, and its implicit potential to balance China, ASEAN has begun to perceive India as a natural partner. India’s diplomacy to the regional players juxtaposed with growing regional insecurity vis-à-vis China suggests that Delhi’s strategic perspective on Southeast Asia is in consonance with the US and ASEAN views of the regional security milieu. This has significantly boosted the efficacy of India as a potential power of consequence in the region.

ASEAN: Not secondary anymore for India

For years, the ASEAN region was at the second tier of priority for India. This was particularly the case after the Cambodian crisis. India has been, to a great extent, only responding. For the ASEAN region, as well, India was at the second tier. However, now, with India’s deeper engagement, the Southeast Asian region is no longer a secondary theater. As China is drawing closer to South Asian countries, it is logical for India to make Southeast Asia part of its primary theater. China’s Maritime Silk Route gives India a perfect opportunity to engage Southeast Asian countries, both economically and militarily.

For ASEAN, India is no more a distant neighbor. Connectivity projects such as the Dawei Deep Sea Port and Industrial Project, the India, Myanmar, and Thailand Trilateral Highway, and the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project are key factors in transforming “Look East” into “Act East.” In essence, these projects are outcomes of the confluence of India’s “Look East” and the “Look West” policy of Thailand (and effectively of most of the ASEAN countries). The ASEAN region is no longer a “secondary theater” for India and the latter no longer a “secondary power” for the region.

Making sense of the transition

Unlike China, which has always been considered a “power of consequence” by ASEAN members, traditionally, India’s impression has been that of a “benign power.” Through the “Look East Policy,” India has strived to become a “power of consequence” to the region. The “Act East Policy” seems to embolden the idea that India has this potential. China’s status as a “power of consequence” has been witnessed in conflicts over the Spratly and Paracel islands with Vietnam, involvement in Indonesian domestic politics during the 1960s, intermittent spats with the Philippines, and economic sanctions on the Philippines in the wake of heightened tensions over South China Sea. China’s economic rise and phenomenal upgrading of military capabilities have made it a predominant power in the region at loggerheads with US hegemony. In contrast, ASEAN and its member countries have cherished India’s image as a “benign power.” India’s cultural interconnections, policy of non-intervention in domestic affairs of other countries, and record of never having a conflict with any ASEAN member country established this image; however, it leaves India lacking the image of a “power of consequence.”

The formative years of Indian foreign policy, when New Delhi was resolute on the policy of “non-alignment” and Asian solidarity, did see it trying to assert leadership in the region, though only ideologically. That faded as ASEAN moved closer to the United States. Even in the late 1970s and 1980s, India’s inward-looking economy and preoccupation with the Indian subcontinent left very little scope for ASEAN to figure in its foreign policy priorities. In the post Cold War era, when India opened up its economy and started reaching out to new partners, ASEAN appeared as one of the most attractive regions. Though positive, ASEAN initially did not show much interest in India. For instance, when the ARF (ASEAN Regional Forum) was established primarily to institutionally hedge against uncertainties arising out of China’s rise, India was not considered worthy of admission. India applied for ARF membership at its very first meeting in 1994. The proposal was turned down, as it was believed that India did not have much to contribute to the regional security equilibrium.

When India opposed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, calling it unfair and discriminatory, unlike others, ASEAN did not protest much. Furthermore, in 1998, when India conducted a series of nuclear tests, ASEAN’s response was mild, despite the fact that ASEAN is one of the first regions in the world that worked towards a “nuclear weapon free zone.” In hindsight, it may be said that many in the ASEAN region considered India’s acquisition of nuclear weapons a positive development, as they were sure that India would not use them against the Southeast Asian countries in any way. Additionally, it would help implicitly to balance China, the sole nuclear power in the region, with which many ASEAN members have been at loggerheads due to maritime disputes in the South China Sea.

However, nuclear capabilities were not enough to make India a “power of consequence” as its application to APEC was turned down in 1997. Intriguingly, while the Indian economy was not considered strong enough to play a key role in the regional economic grouping, Russia and Vietnam entered the group. India has yet to become a member of APEC. During the Asian financial crisis, although India was sympathetic, unlike China, it could not offer much support to the crisis-ridden ASEAN member countries. Though India’s inability had minimal impact on Indo-ASEAN relations, the ASEAN + 3 Chiang Mai initiative improved China’s relations with ASEAN to a considerable extent.

Almost simultaneously, India realized the critical importance of economic and military prowess in foreign policy. As its economic reforms started paying off, so did its renewed engagement with the major powers including the United States. That opened avenues for greater cooperation with ASEAN. Particularly Singapore and Vietnam sensed India’s potential to become a “power of consequence” in the region. The change in attitude towards India was visible in 2005, when the EAS was being established. India, Australia, and New Zealand were being considered as founding members; however, China and Malaysia were not keen on the proposal and instead wanted ASEAN + 3 to be the only members. Beijing also proposed to host the EAS meeting. Alarmed by China’s designs to take leadership of EAS, ASEAN and Japan turned down the Chinese proposal and went ahead with ASEAN’s plan for the EAS, which naturally had ASEAN at the center.

India’s entry into the EAS proved to be a major achievement in terms of its image projection. Its impressive economic growth and its military capability strengthened its case for membership. Additionally, its prompt post-tsunami HADR (Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief) operations in Southeast Asian waters proved its naval efficiency. It also established India as a power to reckon with in terms of tackling transnational non-traditional security threats in the region. India helped Myanmar in a big way during the post-Nargis HADR operations.

India’s remarkable anti-piracy endeavors also made it easy to get a seat in the ADMM Plus. In 2004, while the littoral states of the Malacca Straits strongly objected to the suggestion made by the US navy for a regional initiative to combat terrorism, piracy, etc, they were open to accepting assistance from India for improving the maritime safety of the Straits.34 Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries have welcomed India’s presence in the region. The decision by Indonesia and Malaysia not to protest against Indian and US naval escort operations in the Straits of Malacca in 2001 and 2002 testifies to India’s growing acceptance in the region.35 “As a part of its renewed activism in the wider Asia-Pacific region and its ‘Look East Policy’ aimed at strengthening its influence in Southeast Asia, India has also become increasingly involved in Southeast Asian maritime security.”36 So, in contemporary times, India is seen as a potential security provider to a few ASEAN countries.

As a major space power, India has helped Japan (SEEDS, CUTE 1.7, PROITERES), Indonesia (LAPAN-TUBAT), and Singapore (VELOX- I, VELOX- PIII, TeLEOS-1, X-SAT) launch their satellites at competitive prices. EOSAT of USA commissioned India’s first ground station outside India at Norman, Oklahoma. In October 1993, India signed a major contract with the EOSAT of USA for the reception and worldwide distribution of IRS (Indian Readership Survey) data, which has led to the establishment of over 18 IRS data reception centers in various countries including Thailand, Germany, and Brazil.37 In the Indian Ocean region, the Andaman Sumatra seduction zone, Bay of Bengal is one of the two tsunami-genic source regions. The 24×7 tsunami early warning center (ITEWC) continuously monitors, detects tsunamis, and issues advisories. The ITEWC also acts as one of the regional tsunami advisory service providers for the Indian Ocean region. Countries such as Vietnam rely on India for weather monitoring and disaster alerts. India also provides free information on cyclones to South and Southeast Asian countries.


Transitions are brought about as a result of the cumulative changes that happen over a period of time. The transition from Phase I of India’s “Look East Policy” to Phase II, and seemingly to the “Act East Policy” is an apt example. As India is gearing up for the “Act East Policy”, the process of transition itself will have several manifestations, both implicit and explicit. Projecting the image of a responsible major power, a benign power of consequence, involves proactive, systematic, and comprehensive engagement with the region at all tiers since India has been lagging behind other major powers, like China, Japan, and the United States. India’s perpetual obsession with the Indian subcontinent has damaged its foreign relations considerably. India probably has the best cards to play in the region, but, sadly, has played them very poorly.38 India’s lack of comprehensive economic and strategic engagement with the region is the biggest impediment to its power projection. Despite the signing of several agreements, the total volume of trade is abysmal, which is not going to lead India far in terms of regional politics. In that regard, both the India-ASEAN FTA in Goods and Services and RCEP will prove to be litmus tests for India. With its “Make in India” campaign, Modi’s government has injected a new thrust to the policy. However, “despite Modi’s instincts and intensions, Delhi has much to do before its Act East Policy gains credibility in Asia—“from the creation of a more business-friendly environment to faster implementation of trans-border projects; from visa liberalization to expanding defense cooperation…”39 Clearly, India needs to “walk the talk” in order to become a benign “power of consequence.”

There are several issues that need to be addressed in order to make “Act East” a success: First, India needs to “Act East” “within,” i.e. in its northeastern region. Connectivity between northeast and other Indian states is still incomplete. While Myanmar is India’s gateway to Southeast Asia, India’s northeast is its gateway to Myanmar. A major bottleneck in that regard is that even capitals of the northeastern states are not completely connected through road, rail, and air with one another and the rest of India. Guwahati and Kolkata are the only common links to northeastern cities. With such components missing within India, lack of connectivity with Southeast Asian countries becomes even more difficult. Connectivity with Southeast Asia can be realized only after intra-regional connectivity is ensured inside India.

Second, infrastructure development is an important component of the “Act East Policy.” In this regard, India and the Southeast Asian countries have initiated several projects; however, implementation has been painfully slow. For instance, the Chennai-Dawei Sea Port Project is still in the initial stage. So is the India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway.40 The government has recently extended the project deadline from 2016 to 2018. Another major project to boost the connectivity between India and Southeast Asia is the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project. Once fully operational, it will link the Indian state of Kolkata to Sittwe port in Myanmar and will be extended up to the Indian state of Mizoram.41 Maritime connectivity with Indonesia could further contribute to India’s connectivity plans. This is important, as Indonesia’s Aceh province is less than 90 miles away from India’s southernmost islands.

Third, people-to-people connectivity lies at the core of the “Act East Policy.” Nalanda International University, Modi’s “yoga day” plan, and a Buddhist tourist circuit can contribute immensely to “Act East,” provided the projects are implemented with rigor.

Fourth, despite improved economic stature at the international level, India has been consistently denied APEC membership, which does not augur well for it. From India’s side, there is a need to persuade ASEAN member states to push for its membership at the next APEC summit, which is to be held in Manila. Furthermore, India has to strive hard to gain a key position in the newly established BRICS Bank.

Though “Act East” seems to be providing the necessary thrust to India’s eastward engagement, India has to stop sitting on the fence on issues of strategic importance for the region. Joint defense production and collaboration in defense R&D would help India firm up its capabilities and also find lasting partnerships in the region. Indonesia, Japan, Singapore, and Vietnam are potential partners in that domain. Robust people-to-people contacts and stronger military and economic engagement with the region are the key to India’s aim to become a benign “power of consequence.” “Act East” does not mean getting into conflicts and confrontations; it means creating an enabling environment for peace and prosperity.


1. Act East finds mention in the US-India joint statement. “Noting India’s ‘Act East’ policy and the United States’ rebalance to Asia, the leaders committed to work more closely with other Asia Pacific countries through consultations, dialogues, and joint exercises. They underlined the importance of their trilateral dialogue with Japan and decided to explore holding this dialogue among their Foreign Ministers.” For details see, U.S.-India Joint Statement, The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, September 30, 2014,

2. The first reference to the need to shift from “Look East” is found in Barak Obama’s speech to a joint session of the Indian Parliament in November 2010, where he called upon India to not just ‘Look East’ but “Engage East.” “Remarks by the President to the Joint Session of the Indian Parliament in New Delhi, India,” The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, November 8, 2010,

3. See Rahul Mishra, “India’s Antipodean Neighbour: Why Engaging Australia Matters,” Indian Foreign Affairs Journal 3, no. 4 (November-December 2008), 55-72.

4. “Joint Statement on the State Visit of Prime Minister of Australia to India,” Press Information Bureau, Government of India, Prime Minister’s Office, September 6, 2014,

5. For details see Rahul Mishra, “India-Australia Energy Cooperation: The Road Ahead,” Strategic Analysis 34, no. 6 (2010): 826-832.

6. “Framework for Security Cooperation between India and Australia,” Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, November 18, 2014,

7. “China chill behind warmth of India-Australia security pact,” The Indian Express, November 20, 2014,

8. “Now for an India trade pact,” The Australian Financial Review, November 19, 2014,

9. “Welcome to the new Great Game,” The Age, November 18, 2014,

10. “‘Fraternal’ Myanmar, India for closer links,” The Hindu, November 11, 2014,

11. For details, see Rahul Mishra, “Winds of Change,” Deccan Herald, January 22, 2012,

12. Ibid.

13. “PM Narendra Modi’s Japan visit: 10 key takeaways,” The Economic Times, September 2, 2014,

14. “English Rendering of the India-ASEAN Summit Opening Statement by the PM,” November 12, 2014.

15. She also visited Myanmar and Singapore, the other two critically important countries for India in the ASEAN region.

16. For details see,

17. “India-Indonesia coordinated patrol graduates into joint exercise,” The Hindu, February 6, 2014,

18. “Differences came out during Narendra Modi-Xi Jinping meet ahead of BRICS Summit,” The Economic Times, July 25, 2014,

19. “Sushma Swaraj discusses trade, insurgency with Myanmar,” The Indian Express, August 12, 2014,

20. “Prime Minister’s remarks at the 9th East Asia Summit, Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar,” Ministry of External Affairs, Speeches and Statements, November 13, 2014,

21. For details, see Sana Hashmi, “South China Sea Imbroglio: An Indian Perspective,” Air Power 8, no. 1 (Spring 2013, January-March): 149-166.

22. “Remarks by the President to the Joint Session of the Indian Parliament in New Delhi, India.”.

23. For details, see Rahul Mishra, “Mosaics of Culture: Investigating the Role of Cultural Linkages in India- Indonesia Relations,” IDSA Issue Brief, January 19, 2011,

24. Saroj Pathak, India and Southeast Asia; A Study of Indian Perspective and Policy Since 1962 (Delhi: Atma Ram & Sons, 1990), 42-43.

25. “‘Make 21st Century truly an Asian Century’: PM, Keynote address at special leaders dialogue of Asean Business Advisory Council,” Press Information Bureau, December 12, 2005,

26. Institutional engagements between India and ASEAN have been multilayered. ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), ASEAN + 1 Framework (summit level meetings (between ASEAN and India), EAS, and lately, the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting (ADMM) Plus are to name a few.

27. For details, please see,

28. “India signs FTA in services, investments with ASEAN, Will help professionals get greater market access, says FICCI,” The Tribune, September 9, 2014,

29. The six countries are India, China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand.

30. Based on author’s work, “RCEP: Challenges, opportunities for India,” The Jakarta Post, August 2, 2013.

31. Ibid.

32. Ibid.

33. A country can be termed a “power of consequence” if it has the ability to substantially influence the politico-security and economic dynamics of a particular region.

34. A.N.Ram, Two Decades of India’s Look East Policy (New Delhi: Manohar Publisher, 2012), 77.

35. Based on author’s work, “India-Thailand Relations in East Asian Security Dynamics,” in SD Muni and Vivek Chadha, Asian Strategic Review (New Delhi: Pentagon Press,2014), 171-172.

36. John Bradford, “Southeast Asian maritime security in the age of terror: threats, opportunity, and charting the course forward,” IDSS working paper, No. 75, April 2005.

37. U.R. Rao, India’s Rise as a Space Power (New Delhi: Foundation Books, 2014), 193.

38. Author’s personal conversation with Professor Amitav Acharya Singapore, July 6, 2011.

39. C. Raja Mohan, “Not so easy to Act East,” The Indian Express, November 22, 2014,

40. Moe Thuzar, Rahul Mishra, Francis Hutchinson, Tin Maung Maung Than, and Termsak Chalermpalanupap, “Connecting South and Southeast Asia: Implementation Challenges and Coordination Arrangements,” ADBI Working Paper Series, Asian Development Bank Institute, No. 501 September 2014

41. Ibid.


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