Southeast Asia is a focal point of India’s foreign policy, strategic concerns and economic interests. With Myanmar already included in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), India shares land border with ASEAN and maritime border with Thailand and Malaysia. In this context, the Northeast region of India has emerged as a critical bridgehead. India considers ASEAN to be the nucleus of a dynamic Southeast Asia. As India’s global trade takes place through sea routes, India looks towards ASEAN playing a critical role in establishing a multilateral security order in the Asia–Pacific region. Although ASEAN and Japan see India as a potential balancing power vis-a-vis China, India preferred a complementary relationship to confrontation (Mattoo 2001).
India’s Look East policy , now termed as the Act East policy with a greater focus on its implementation seeks to establish closer political relations with ASEAN, evolve strategic links with its member countries and develop strong economic ties with the Asia-Pacific region. The policy also manifests India’s strategy to carve a place in the Asia-Pacific region. Another interesting dimension of the policy is that of showcasing India’s economic potential for investments and trade. The initial focus on the ASEAN apart, India has opened itself to the eastern neighbours encompassing China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand. India maintains its relations with these countries bilaterally as well as through regional frameworks like the East Asia Summit (EAS), Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM), and ASEAN, and sub-regional organisations like Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) and Mekong-Ganga Cooperation (MGC).
In the beginning of the new millennium when the idea of building physical connectivity with Southeast Asia gained momentum, India embarked on the second phase of the Look East policy, with a much broader agenda encompassing security cooperation, regional transport and connectivity infrastructure development, expansion of trade relations, and unlocking of Northeast India which not only has huge economic potential but also occupies a strategic position vis-à-vis Southeast Asia. It has also envisaged that India’s thriving economic relations with Southeast Asia would benefit Northeast India in terms of economic development and stability. Thus, the Look East policy is not necessarily a strategy to counterbalance China or to claim an influential position in Southeast Asia. In short, it is a multi-faceted and multi-pronged Southeast Asia initiative that has enabled India to make significant strides in the following areas (Chand 2014). Initiatives like India-Myanmar-Thailand Highway project from Moreh in India to Mae Sot in Thailand via Myanmar; India-ASEAN car rallies from Guwahati to Indonesia (2004) and from Indonesia to Guwahati (2012); and upgrading and building the missing links between Jiribam (India) and Mandalay (Myanmar) towards establishing a rail link between Delhi and Hanoi via Myanmar, Thailand and Cambodia could promote trade and tourism between India and ASEAN.
India’s Northeast region is surrounded by powerful economies, viz. China and Southeast Asia. The region links the rest of India with Southeast Asia via Myanmar. A geopolitically important and resource-rich region has tremendous potential to become a commercial hub and international tourist destination (Batra 2009). The region has opportunities for investment and cooperation in sectors like hydropower and oil and natural gas. Therefore, development initiatives for the region and Myanmar are critical for enhancing India–ASEAN connectivity (Kimura and Umezaki 2011). In the given perspective, strategies to connect India with Southeast Asia need to focus on exploring new routes—sea and land—that pass through the strategic Northeast region.
Northeast India is endowed with rich natural resources, the large hydro-energy potential apart from coal and gas-based power, limestone, forest wealth, fruits and vegetables, herbs and aromatic plants, rare and rich flora and fauna. The region has also a large perennial water system comprising the Barak and Brahmaputra rivers which could provide a cost-effective means of transportation across the region. The region has all the potential to transform itself into a commercial hub and tourist destination. This is a huge untapped, emerging market, which should prove to be of interest to large domestic and international investors (Sailo 2012). A well-integrated transport system at the regional level is essential to accelerate the economic integration process. Geographically contiguous regions find it much easier to strengthen their surface transport connectivity provided the concept is politically compatible. Besides, the world economy is highly interdependent, thereby making transport cost a significant determinant of competitiveness. Thus, an integrated and efficient surface transport network, e.g. the Asian Highway, becomes an essential element of economic integration at different levels–sub-regional, regional and global.
Over and above, it is important to put in place an adequate facilitation system so that smooth movement of people and goods across international borders and countries can be ensured. Therefore, the regional cooperation initiatives need to address the issues of strengthening transport linkages as well as facilitation services to achieve the desired economic integration. In essence, the idea of creating ‘an integrated economic space’ that stretches from India’s Northeast to Southeast Asia is reinforced by the argument that for the landlocked region, the Asian Highway is crucial to the revival of the cross-continent transport network that the legendary Silk Route provided in the past.
India’s initiative to liberalise its civil aviation policy has helped improve air connectivity between India and ASEAN countries in the last decade. The India-ASEAN car rallies were successfully organised from Guwahati in Assam to Batam in Indonesia in 2004 and from Yogyakarta, Indonesia to Guwahati in 2012 passing through Northeast India, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia and Singapore. These initiatives sensitised the people of the ASEAN countries and India to the potential for trade, tourism and people-to-people contact. To enhance rail connectivity in the region, India has launched a feasibility study for upgrading and building the missing links between Jiribam in Manipur (India) and Mandalay in Myanmar. India is assisting in upgrading the Mandalay-Yangon railway sector to establish a rail link between Delhi and Hanoi via Myanmar, Thailand and Cambodia. These road and rail links could, over time, connect with many North-South arterial roads being developed between Southeast Asia and China, thereby providing not only a cheap means of transportation of goods, tourists and pilgrims between India and Southeast Asia, but also overland connectivity between China and India via Southeast Asia.
Though geographically contiguous, the connectivity between Myanmar and Northeast India is still very weak, and the trade facilitation is lacking. The physical infrastructure projects like the Trilateral Highway, which is also a part of the Asian Highway, can fill the gap in connectivity and facilitate border trade. The trilateral highway can also be connected to India’s national highway network, including the Golden Quadrilateral, via this region. On the other hand, four states in the region, namely Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Tripura share international borders with Bangladesh. India has established several Land Custom Stations along the India-Bangladesh border, though inadequate infrastructure and transport and trade facilitation border have impacted border trade. The Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project is likely to be an alternative route that can connect Northeast India and the rest of India via Myanmar, and inland waterway along the Ganga is expected to enhance the connectivity between other parts of India and Northeast India via Bangladesh (De 2011).
The Act East policy has succeeded in making India an inalienable part of the Indo–Pacific’s strategic discourse. Sustained and skilful diplomacy has enabled India to pursue its Act East policy in terms of developing a multi-faceted relationship, putting a successful defence diplomacy in place and participating in regional multilateralism—security and economic. India’s connectivity diplomacy in Southeast Asia is also reflective of its thriving policy. Furthermore, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has emphasised the importance of the Northeast region in the Act East policy. During the Global Investors Summit held in Guwahati in 2018, Prime Minister Modi said ‘We have created the Act East policy and the Northeast is at the heart of it… The Act East policy requires increased people-to-people contact, trade ties and relations with countries to the east of India, particularly ASEAN countries’. Connectivity with ASEAN in all its dimensions—physical, institutional and people-to-people—continues to be a strategic priority for India. The ASEAN-India Summit-level partnership shows how India-ASEAN relations have progressed in the desired direction. In fact, their relationship is no longer merely an Indian priority.
Mattoo, Amitabh, (2001), ‘ASEAN in India’s Foreign Policy,’ In Frederic Grare and Amitabh Mattoo (eds.), India and ASEAN: The Politics of India’s Look East Policy, New Delhi: Manohar Distributor & Publisher.
Batra, Amita, (2009), ‘India-ASEAN FTA: A Critique,’ IPCS Issue Brief, No.116, New Delhi: IPCS.
Kimura, Fukumari and So Umezaki, (2011), ASEAN-India Connectivity: The Comprehensive Asia Development Plan, Phase II, ERIA Research Project Report 2010-7, Jakarta: Economic Research Institute for ASEAN and East Asia.
Sailo, Laldinkima, (2012), Northeast India-Southeast Asia Connectivity: Barrier to Bridge, ISAS Working Paper, No. 162, 16 November, Singapore: Institute of South Asian Studies.
De, Prabir, (2011), ‘ASEAN-India Connectivity: An Indian Perspective’, in Kimura, F. and S. Umezaki (eds.) ASEAN-India Connectivity: the Comprehensive Asia Development Plan, Phase II, ERIA Research Project Report.
For more information, please see ‘India turned 'Look East' policy into 'Act East' policy: Modi in Myanmar,’ First Post, November 13, 2014.
For more information, see Asian Highway, available at https://www.unescap.org/our-work/transport/asian-highway/about (Accessed on July 25, 2018).
‘Global Investors’ Summit: Northeast at heart of Act East, says PM Modi,’ The Indian Express, February 4, 2018.