Act East will be effective only if NE States buy in and New Delhi is willing to show muscle
The communist regime of the People’s Republic of China has never been more emphatic about its expansionist ambition and hegemon-seeking status than under Xi Jinping. From ambitions of developing overseas military bases in Iran, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and the East African seaboard to dual-use infrastructure building in the South China Sea islands, on the Tibetan plateau and other peripheral areas that Beijing considers its own, China has been working in a systematic, incremental manner for over five decades now to ensure the projection of its strategic heft is simultaneous and in sync with the growth of its economic-military power. Beijing’s engagement with ASEAN, which predates India’s and where it has had the first-mover advantage, means that is has been partnering with member countries and the grouping as a whole in collaborative commercial, trade and infrastructure projects for a while now. But it also means that, as China increasingly weighs in on security-strategic issues of which its moves in the South China Sea is a good example, frictions with ASEAN are beginning to grow and show. In fact, there is a school of thought within the ASEAN strategic community which has pushed engagement with India as a countervailing force to what they see as Beijing’s bullying propensity. It is nobody’s case that New Delhi should be limited in its erstwhile Look East and now Act East Policy by these developments, of course. Our national interest must always take precedence over trying to compete with a much more powerful and economically much stronger nation in the Southeast Asian sphere. But it would also be foolhardy to ignore the context in which our Act East policy must play out. There is, increasingly, pressure on India from its friends and allies in the region to not limit its engagement with ASEAN in particular to trade, commerce and anti-piracy maritime collaboration alone but to take a more robust stand on the security-strategic issues that concern the region. Yet, we cannot walk before we learn to crawl and our economic engagement with ASEAN must be deepened and broadened, in a hurry, before we are in a position to do so.
It is in the light of this complex, evolving situation that we welcome External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj’s interactive session on Friday with Governments of India’s North-Eastern States in an attempt to make them active stakeholders in the Act East Policy. That her MoS General (Retd) VK Singh and the Vice-Chairman of Niti Aayog were also present as the Chief Ministers of Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Nagaland and Tripura along with the Deputy Chief Minister of Arunachal Pradesh engaged in brainstorming is positive news and it follows up on an earlier conference chaired by Swaraj with the Governors of the North-Eastern States in November 2017. The focus of these meetings has to be to ensure that these States have skin in the game, which is better connectivity and building a framework of economic co-dependence between India’s North East and its eastern neighbors (ASEAN nations) to speed up growth and development. The ASEAN-India Commemorative Summit held in New Delhi on 25 January on the eve of the heads of state of member nations graced the Republic Day celebrations have set the optics just right. Now, we must act to redeem our pledge.
Not just because intra-regional and sub-regional surface and air linkages, seamless connectivity in the contiguous neighborhood, development of infrastructure to enhance trade, commerce, investment, tourism and people-to-people ties are a good in itself, which they undoubtedly are, but also because without these coming to fruition in a timebound manner New Delhi’s ability to take a stand on the vital security/strategic issues of the day is severely impaired.