India’s Look East Policy was an important transformation in its foreign policy which was envisaged by the Government of India in 1991 under the Premiership of P. V. Narasimha Rao. This was the time when the Cold war ended, and the Soviet Union collapsed. The world witnessed a new type of international order in which apparently the United States (U.S.) emerged as the sole superpower. At that time, the Indian leadership conceived the need to find new international partners, as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.) was disintegrated, the resultant 15 states were witnessing an internal struggle for power – a little short of a civil war, and their respective economies were in tatters. Also, the Indian policymakers were in a constant state of uncertainty vis-à-vis its Western neighbor i.e., Pakistan. The aforementioned geopolitical reasons were the driving force behind the conception of the Look East Policy.
The dynamism of International Relations somehow drove New Delhi to adopt a shift in its foreign policy and started looking toward its Eastern neighbors. The chief focus of the Look East policy was to shift the country’s trading focus from the Western neighbors to the South-East Asian nations. Later, in 2003, the scope of India’s Look East Policy was expanded and included East Asian nations such as China, Japan, and Korea. Trade and investment relations remained the most important elements.
This policy remained the same till the formation of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government in 2014 under Prime Minister Narendra Modi who upgraded the Look East Policy to the Act East Policy. The Act East Policy was introduced at the East Asia Summit in Myanmar in November 2014. PM Modi proposed that India’s economy was comparatively strong, and its global profile was higher than it was in the decades before.
Modi gave a new push to strengthen economic, strategic, and diplomatic relations with states that share common concerns with India on China’s growing economic and military strength and its implications for the growing regional order.
Impact of China on India’s Transformation
The border clashes between India and China in the Galwan Valley and the death of 20 Indian soldiers and an indefinite number of Chinese soldiers resulted in a state of crisis between both countries. Relations between Delhi and Beijing had barely been friendly prior to the event, with territorial disagreements over the Himalayan regions of Aksai Chin and Arunachal Pradesh contaminating the ties between the world’s most crowded states.
Beyond Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea, China appears to also grow increasingly self-confident on its Himalayan border, which pitches President Xi Jinping’s territorial desires against those of PM Modi’s progressively nationalist India. With both countries having access to nuclear weapons, the clashes in the Galwan Valley in mishmash with the 2017 Doklam Deadlock between China and India in Bhutan support the Indo-Sino rivalry as one of the most crucial political conflicts, not just in Asia but the world as a whole.
Until the conclusion of the Cold War, Indian economic policy was focused on a protectionist doctrine that highlighted state intervention and a generally high grade of central planning in both micro- and macro-economic terms. The protection for local consumers and products were ensured through high tax and tariffs on imports and exports, and in that way established the consumption of domestic products but limited India’s incorporation into global supply chains and financial markets.
India’s position of economic isolation began to be pulled to pieces following the end of the Cold War, especially through the 1991 liberalization reforms introduced by PM Rao.
Rao’s reforms pursued to address the bigger economic hardships India had begun to encounter in the 1980s as New Delhi had nearly failed to pay on its external debt by the end of the decade. Rao’s liberalization program was calculated to attract investment into India and open up the Indian market to global financial streams by reducing tariffs and State-monopolies, in that way making the Indian consumer market with its more than one billion members a highly attractive target for foreign direct investment.
Efforts of Narendra Modi
The prime minister of India shifted the geostrategic posture of India in the Indo-Pacific and reformulated New Delhi’s approach to one that is more strategically assertive, according to a European think tank. In 2018, Prime Minister Modi encouraged a free, open, prosperous, and inclusive Indo-Pacific Region as one of the key goals of the AEP. The free navigability of international watercourses is a key point of the AEP as it connects New Delhi’s aims to that of other actors in the region like Australia, Japan, and the U.S.
The Act East Policy has extended the operational scope of India’s earlier Look East Policy beyond one that is purely focused on economics to one that incorporates matters of security in the Indo-Pacific region. This links the AEP as geostrategy to other regional geostrategies, resulting in a merging of security aims and subsequently emerging security cooperation,” the EFSAS said in its commentary.
Objectives of Look East Policy
- To promote regional Integration
- To restart political contacts with the ASEAN member countries
- To increase economic linkage with Southeast Asia through an increase in trade, investments, science and technology, tourism; and
- To promote defense links with many countries of this region to strengthen political understanding.
- Reform and Liberalization
- To have immense economic growth.
- Under the Look East policy, India for the first time sees the region as a gateway to East Asia and links the North-Eastern region with Southeast Asia through a network of pipelines, road, rail, and air connectivity.
Objectives of Act East Policy
- To encourage an economic, cultural, and strategic relationship with nations in the Asia-Pacific region through constant engagement at regional, bilateral, and multilateral stages.
- To increase the communication of the North-Eastern states of India’s Eastern neighbors through corporeal connectivity, infrastructure expansion, and development of trade, etc.
- To determine the replacements of India’s traditional business associates and more focus will be on the Asia-Pacific states alongside the Southeast Asian nations.
- To contain China by curbing its increasing influence in the ASEAN region. Trade between India and ASEAN increased up to $71.6 billion in 2016-17 from $2 billion in the early ’90s. On the other hand, trade between China and ASEAN stood at $452.31 billion in 2016.
- Many experts are of the view that under the Act East Policy, the government of India is relying on the 4 C’s (Culture, Connectivity, Commerce, and Capacity Building) to develop better relations with the ASEAN member countries and others in the Asia-Pacific region.
There were several reasons for the adoption of the Look East Policy by the Indian government in 1991. During the early 1990s both the domestic and international environment forced India to look for an alternative and therefore New Delhi’s foreign policy took a turn and started looking towards its east for gaining its economic development. Further in 2014, the NDA government under the Prime Minister ship of Narendra Modi realized the need for an active role of India through its active participation in developing economic, cultural, strategic, and defense cooperation with South-East Asian countries and beyond.
One of the major causes for the adoption of the Act East Policy is to counter China by reducing its influence in South-East Asia. The Act East Policy is just a modern form of the Look East Policy of India. Under this Act, the East Policy government of India has now been taking several steps to develop the North-Eastern states as it is under the LEP and is regarded as the gateway to South-East Asia. One of the significant differences between the Look East and the Act East is that under the Act East Policy, the government of India has provided much focus on infrastructure development in the regional power of South Asia northeast to ensure its physical connectivity with East Asia. Besides under this policy, the Indian government has been looking to establish defense cooperation with its Eastern neighbors mainly to ensure its security threat from China.
The author is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad (ISSI), Pakistan. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com ORCID: http://orcid.org/0000-0001-9818-2532.