Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

Dephasing India's Look East/Act East Policy

Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

Dephasing India's Look East/Act East Policy

Article excerpt

India's "Look East" policy was launched in the early 1990s as part of a concerted effort to elevate the strategic importance of Southeast Asia in the country's foreign policy agenda. The policy has been described as going through various phases, with an accelerated pace and process of interaction in moving from one phase to the next, marked by a broadening and deepening of India's interaction with the region. This has culminated in the most recent "phase" under the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, which has rebranded the policy as "Act East" to signify a more pro-active and action-oriented approach towards the region. However, has there been any real and substantive change in India's engagement with Southeast Asia in moving from one "phase" to the next? Does this narrative of phases in India's post-Cold War engagement with Southeast Asia hold any substance? This article deconstructs the narrative of phases in India's Look East and now Act East policy and argues that India's eastward engagement has not been a process of simple linear progression. As such, while the concept of phases in India's Look East policy serves as a useful narrative device, it does not capture the nuances of India's post-Cold War re-engagement with Southeast Asia, which has been far more complex than this narrative suggests.

Keywords: Indian foreign policy, Look East, Act East, Southeast Asia, ASEAN.

The year 2017 marks twenty-five years of dialogue partnership, fifteen years of summit-level relations and five years of strategic partnership between India and ASEAN. The relationship between India and Southeast Asia has come a long way from the days of mutual mistrust rooted in concerns over India's naval ambitions in the 1980s; (1) New Delhi's support for Vietnam following its invasion of Kampuchea (Cambodia) in 1978 and recognition of the Heng Samrin regime in 1980; (2) and Indian perceptions of ASEAN as "an instrument of neo-colonialism and a reincarnation of SEATO [South-East Asia Treaty Organization]" following its creation in 1967. (3) Undoubtedly, India's economic interactions, institutional linkages and security cooperation with Southeast Asian countries have grown in leaps and bounds in the post-Cold War period.

The "Look East" policy, which was launched in the early 1990s as part of an effort to re-engage with Southeast Asia, has been characterized by Indian scholars and policymakers as evolving through various "phases", with an accelerated pace and process of interaction in moving from one phase to the next. (4) This has been marked by a broadening and deepening of India's engagement with the region: broadening as the policy has expanded beyond its initial geographic focus on Southeast Asia to encapsulate the broader East Asia and now Indo-Pacific region; and deepening to expand beyond its initial focus on economic integration towards greater political interaction and security cooperation. This has culminated in the most recent "phase" under Prime Minister Narendra Modi who assumed power in 2014 and rebranded the policy as "Act East" to signify a shift towards a more pro-active and action-oriented approach to the region. (5)

However, is the recently rebranded Act East policy real? In other words, has there been any real and substantive change in India's engagement with Southeast Asia under its most recent "phase"? More broadly, does the narrative of phases in India's post-Cold War engagement with Southeast Asia hold any credence? One could argue that the various phases of the Look East policy are rooted in domestic political rhetoric rather than foreign policy shifts as new governments have sought to differentiate their policymaking approach from previous administrations. Notably, the first phase corresponds with the Congress (Indian National Congress) government of Prime Minister Narasimha Rao that came to power in 1991, while the second phase was unveiled by the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) government in the early 2000s after it assumed power in 1998-99 and continued under the Congress government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in 2004. …

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