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'Act East'

Interview: Gabriel DomínguezDecember 19, 2014

India's ''Look East policy" has long shaped the nation's ties with the Asia-Pacific. But PM Modi now pursues a more ambitious agenda based on stronger ties to Japan, Vietnam, Australia and ASEAN, says Danielle Rajendram.

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi (R) and Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe shake hands before their talks at the state guest house in Tokyo, Japan, 01 September 2014 (Photo: EPA/TORU HANAI / POOL +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++)
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

For over two decades India's "Look East" policy has shaped the way the country deals with its neighbors in the Asia-Pacific region, leading to substantially deeper economic, institutional, and security relations. Driven in part by India's strategy of counter-balancing China's influence, the policy was initially aimed at diplomatic and economic engagement with Southeast Asia.

But over the years, the policy has evolved to include broader security and defense ties across the whole Asia-Pacific, with India signalling its willingness to play a greater strategic role in the region. Given the swiftly changing security dynamics in the region, Indian PM Narendra Modi - who swept to power in a landslide victory in the April-May election - rechristened the approach as the "Act East" policy, stating the importance of also seeking deeper ties with partners such as Japan, Vietnam, South Korea and Australia.

Danielle Rajendram, India expert at the Sydney-based Lowy Institute, explains in a DW interview what lies at the core of the "Act East" policy and why she believes the Modi-led government will pursue a greater and more ambitious role in the Asia-Pacific in line with the country's growing economic and strategic interests.

Danielle Rajendram
Rajendram: 'PM Modi's approach to the Asia-Pacific builds upon the policies of previous governments'Image: Lowy Institute

DW: What has been at the core of India's Look East Policy over the past years?

Danielle Rajendram: India's Look East Policy was initiated in the early 1990s with the aim of increasing its economic relations with Southeast Asia. Since then, the focus and objectives of Look East has broadened to include the entire Asia-Pacific, and building economic, institutional and defence links with the region. India's interest in the Asia-Pacific is being driven by both an understanding of the economic benefits of closer engagement with East and Southeast Asia, a convergence of strategic objectives, and a desire for a larger global role for India.

How does PM Narendra Modi's new approach towards the Asia-Pacific differ from this policy?

In many respects, Prime Minister Modi's approach to the Asia-Pacific builds upon the policies of previous governments. However, his government has intensified its outreach to India's key partners, such as Japan, Vietnam, Australia and ASEAN. His key goals are to deepen economic ties with the Asia-Pacific in order to boost India's own economic growth, to balance externally against Chinese influence in the Indian Ocean, and to expand India's global role. While the Modi government must work quickly to ensure that 'Act East' goes beyond a rebranding of an existing policy, the upgraded policy signals India's intention to assume a greater role in the region.

What will this mean for India's relationships with major Asian players such as China, Japan and ASEAN?

India's relations with China have long proceeded upon two distinct economic and security tracks. Although Beijing is New Delhi's top two-way trading partner, tensions along their disputed border and China's increasing presence in the Indian Ocean, continues to make India uneasy. The Modi government will take a pragmatic approach to the relationship, and will attempt to maintain positive economic ties. However, it can be expected that Modi will take a stronger approach to incidents such as incursions across the Line of Actual Control.

India is certainly wary of China's growing presence in the Indian Ocean and its relationships with India's South Asian neighbours. In light of this, India's Look East Policy can be conceived as part of an external balancing strategy against China. At the same time, Beijing is also displaying wariness towards India's growing relationships with key partners in East and Southeast Asia, particularly with Vietnam and Japan. While it is not in India's interests to engage in direct rivalry with China, it can be expected that an element of competition will continue to characterize the China-India bilateral relationship.

These tensions will also serve to reinforce the relevance of investing in India's relationships with partners such as ASEAN and Japan. ASEAN will remain a critical component of India's Look East Policy. Chinese assertiveness on territorial disputes has given India the opportunity to enhance its strategic presence in Southeast Asia, and ASEAN states are increasingly looking to India to play a balancing role in the region. Bilateral partnerships within individual ASEAN states, such as Vietnam and Indonesia, hold particular promise.

New Delhi's relations with Tokyo are likely to undergo the most change under the Modi government, particularly in light of his personal connection with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Japan's tense relationship with China has prompted it to reach out to India as a potential strategic partner. As the most advanced Asian naval power, and as a potential source of considerable investment and technological assistance, Japan offers India significant partnership opportunities as it shifts its focus eastwards.

What role could Australia play in India's eastward shift?

Although the Australia-India relationship has in the past suffered from inattention, there is currently recognition in both Delhi and Canberra of the economic opportunities of closer ties, and a growing convergence of strategic interests between the two. This year has already brought about an unprecedented level of engagement between Australia and India, and the upgraded 'Act East' policy will continue to have a positive impact on bilateral ties. There is much potential for greater cooperation between the two Indian Ocean democracies on security, particularly in the maritime domain. In recognition of this, the two countries recently concluded a Framework for Security Cooperation in order to consolidate and provide direction for their expanding defence and security ties.

Women dressed in traditional costume greet the heads of state on the second day of the ASEAN summit on November 13, 2014 in Naypyidaw, Myanmar (Photo: Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)
Rajendram: 'ASEAN states are increasingly looking to India to play a balancing role in the region'Image: Getty Images

What are the main risks and opportunities of Modi's 'Act East' policy?

The Modi government will need to proceed carefully with its engagement with the Asia-Pacific, particularly with regards to Chinese sensitivities. But should it be able to do so, successfully enhancing its role in East and Southeast Asia could signal the beginning of the pursuit of a more serious approach for India across the entire Indo-Pacific region.

Danielle Rajendram is a Research Associate in the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute, where her work focuses on Indian foreign and domestic policy, India-China relations and Asian security issues.