GS-2, International Relations, Uncategorized

India – ASEAN and Look East Policy

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Despite India’s geographical proximity to South-East Asia, sharing over 1,600 km of land boundary with Myanmar and maritime boundaries with Myanmar, Thailand and Indonesia, South-East Asia was hardly a priority area in Indian foreign policy before the 1990s. Initiated in the early part of the 1990s, India’s ‘Look East’ policy has been directed to the region through the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Though it is claimed that the Look East policy encompasses the entire Asia-Pacific region, its primary focus was undoubtedly on South-East Asia during the first phase of this policy that lasted until recently. It appears that during the second phase, India, apart from consolidating its relations with South-East Asia, is looking beyond at the larger Asia-Pacific region.

ASEAN members were, anyway, initially lukewarm to any idea of India’s membership in the regional association for individual reasons:

  • Indonesia, the natural and de facto leader of the organization, feared that if India became a member it would dominate the organization.
  • India’s strong anti-Chinese feelings, particularly after the Sino–Indian border conflict of 1962, might have created an adverse impact on Singapore’s majority ethnic Chinese population if India at that time had been admitted as a member of ASEAN.
  • Furthermore, Thailand and the Philippines were opposed to India’s non-aligned foreign policy and were overtly pro-USA.
  • Moreover, after the signing of the Indo-Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Co-operation by India in 1971, the ASEAN states were suspicious of the USSR’s role in determining India’s foreign policy towards the region in general, and Viet Nam in particular.
  • After Viet Nam’s military intervention in Kampuchea in December 1978, India, by its decision to recognize the Heng Samrin regime in Kampuchea backed by Viet Nam forfeited whatever little goodwill it enjoyed in the ASEAN region at that time. Such Cold War postures created a distance between India and the ASEAN for a long time until the world bipolar structure collapsed in the late 1980s, ushering in a new era of regional equations.
Focus on the last lines of each member countries to get a sense of where the new loyalties lie

Changes in the Discourses

  • The cumulative impact of the political and strategic changes that followed the end of the Cold War after the demolition of USSR
  • The adoption of market reforms by the Congress (I) Government in India headed by P.V. Narasimha Rao (1991–96) led to a gradual transition in Indian-ASEAN relations. It was during this time that the Congress Government in India initiated the Look East policy, with the aim of re-ordering India’s relations with the states in the South-East Asian region
  • Many ASEAN states were attracted by the economic opportunities that a huge market like India offered after the decision to liberalize the Indian economy was taken. India was, in turn, attracted by the economic vitality of South-East Asia
  • After 1998 Nuclear explosions provided an option to play off against china in the region (Chinese policies were quite aggressive towards Southeast Asian nations)

ASEAN: Origins

  • The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, was established on 8 August 1967 in Bangkok, Thailand
  • The Founding Fathers of ASEAN were, namely Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand
  • Since then, membership has expanded to include Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar (Burma), and Vietnam
  • The creation of ASEAN was motivated by a common fear of communism, and a thirst for economic development

Image result for asean origin

ASEAN follows the principle of “ASEAN way”:

  1. Musyawarah And Mufakat  [deliberation and consensus]
  2. Don’t use force/confrontation
  3. Don’t interfere in the internal matters of states
  4. Informal discussion
  5. Minimal institutionalisation

To achieve “the ASEAN way”, Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia (TAC) was signed.

TAC Treaty

It provides the guiding principles of ASEAN

  1. They’ll not interfere in the internal affairs of one another,
  2. They’ll not use threat or use of force to settle differences / disputes
  3. They’ll settle of differences or disputes by peaceful means,
  4. They’ll effectively cooperate among themselves.
  5. They’ll mutually respect each other’s’ independence, sovereignty, equality, territorial integrity and national identity
  6. Every State has right lead its national existence free from external interference, subversion or coercion, India had signed TAC treaty with ASEAN in 2003

Timeline: Growth of ASEAN since 90s

A generic timeline wrt. origins and expansion

1994 ASEAN regional forum (ARF)
1997 ASEAN+3 is formed to increase regional integration. This includes

  1. China
  2. Japan
  3. South Korea
2002 Treaty to control haze pollution in South East Asia
2006 ASEAN gets observer status in UNGA (General assembly)
2007 Cebu declaration for energy securities and renewable energy.
2010 Chiang Mai Initiative (CMI)It is a currency swap agreement among ASEAN +3,

It provides emergency liquidity to those economies during crises.

2012 Asean Human Rights Declaration21st ASEAN Summit in Phnom Penh Combodia with theme:“ASEAN: One Community, One Destiny”
2013 22nd ASEAN summit in Brunei, theme: Our People, Our Future Together.
2015 ASEAN community will be setup.

ASEAN Community (2015)

Similar to European Union, ASEAN community is a dream with three pillars

  1. ASEAN Political Security Community
  2. ASEAN Economic Community
  3. ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community

This old article at The Diplomat analyses the importance (or lack of it) of such initiatives. The important paragraphs are reproduced here:

The ASEAN Leaders have declared that the 2009-2015 Road Map consisting of the three Community Blueprints – Economic (AEC), Political-Security (APSC), Socio-Cultural (ASCC) -shall form the basis of the overall ASEAN Community (AC15). Of course, the ASEAN Charter and other subsequent key initiatives would also define the AC15. By focusing on the broader goals, objectives, strategies, and targets set in these instruments, the contours and key markers of the AC15 can be easily framed, both in quantitative and qualitative terms as appropriate.

More work needs to be done on trade facilitation, expedited uniform customs clearance, removal of non-tariff measures, and facilitated movement of skilled persons. The Open Sky policy has clearly benefitted the people resulting in a dramatic increase in air travel, physically bringing ASEAN people closer for meaningful interaction and regional integration.

The fact that ASEAN has been a relatively peaceful region compared to the rest of the world should score high for APSC. The Preah Vihear Temple, Sipadan and Ligitan Islands, Pedra Branca, and even development issues such as the Malayan Railway Land deal between Malaysia and Singapore have shown the States’ maturity in using bilateral, regional and international mechanisms to resolve disputes amicably while accepting the verdicts gracefully.

Such multiple channels of dispute settlement should be pursued concurrently for the South China Sea disputes.

ASEAN has also been affected by terrorism and transnational crimes.Ensuring a drug-free ASEAN by 2015, on hindsight, is way off the mark, but with recent record-breaking seizure of illegal drugs, coordinated enforcement, and severe penalties we should be moving steadily towards that goal. The ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights is already operational, and more needs to be done on human rights protection.

India and ASEAN relationship

A quick overview. Important items are highlighted:

1992: India becomes ASEAN’s sectoral dialogue partner

1995: India invited to become full dialogue partner in 5th ASEAN Summit, Bangkok

1996: ASEAN invites India to become member of ASEAN Regional Forum

2002: India and ASEAN begin to hold annual summit level meetings

2003: India accedes to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia at Bali summit

2003: India signs framework pact for free trade agreement with Thailand in October

2004: India-Thailand sign Free Trade Agreement

2004: Negotiations with Malaysia begins on comprehensive economic cooperation agreement, Dec 20

2005: India-Singapore sign Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement, June 29

2005: Joint study group set up for comprehensive economic cooperation agreement with Indonesia, Nov 11

2007: India-ASEAN target $50m bn bilateral trade by 2010

2008: India-ASEAN conclude free trade pact, Aug 28

2008: India-ASEAN agree to negotiate pact on investment and services, Aug 28

2014: India-ASEAN signs FTA

Cons of India FTA Agreement:

  1. While there are many benefits to the ASEAN-India FTA, there is concern in India that the agreement will have several negative impacts on the economy.
  2. Aim of FTAs? To reduce their tariffs on a majority of their traded goods. This will allow them to increase the market access of their products. It is criticised, however, that India will not experience as great an increase in market access to ASEAN countries as ASEAN will in India.
  3. The economies of the ASEAN countries are largely export-driven, maintaining high export-to-GDP ratios (in 2007, Malaysia had a ratio of over 100%)
  4. Considering this, as well as the global financial crisis and India’s expansive domestic market, the ASEAN countries will look eagerly towards India as a home for its exports

Kerala raised issues with PM Modi on this:

Before the agreement was signed, the Chief Minister of Kerala, V.S. Achuthanandan, led a delegation to the Indian Prime Minister protesting against the FTA:

  1. The state of Kerala is an important exporter in the national export of plantation products. It fears that cheap imports of rubber, coffee, and fish would lower domestic production, adversely affecting farmers and ultimately its economy
  2. Kerala has already experienced a flooding of its market with inexpensive imports under the South Asia Free Trade Agreement of 2006. What’s that?
  3. Cheap coconuts from Sri Lanka and palm oil from Malaysia has since hindered Kerala’s coconut cultivation.

Previous Year Questions

Q.1) Evaluate the economic and strategic dimensions of India’s Look East Policy in the context of the post-Cold War international scenario. (2016 Mains)

Q.2) With respect to the South China sea, maritime territorial disputes and rising tension affirm the need for safeguarding maritime security to ensure freedom of navigation and over flight throughout the region. In this context, discuss the bilateral issues between India and China. (2014 Mains)

India’s Look East Policy:

Look East Policy-

  • launched by former Prime Minister  P.V Narasimha Rao in 1991.
  • focus only on south east asian counteries
  • the Look East Policy to reconnect with Asia as part of India’s economic globalisation.
  • historical connection- From a Look East-Act east perspective, we might recall a bit of history. The Kalingas had looked East for trade some 2000 years ago. Last year happened to be the Millennium of the coronation of Rajendra Chola. The Chola Empire stretched from India into many of the countries in today’s South East Asia. We see the effects of their cultural and other ingress into these countries. The Chola Empire could perhaps be seen as the first movement towards the evolution of India’s Look East-Act East policy.
  • separate policy of East Asia because of the following reasons-

  – economic recession and balanced of payment crisis in mid 1991 in India due to Gulf war which was mainly because of Geopolitical tension.

-collapse of Soviet union ( cold war end- 1990) , created a strategic and economic vaccum of India.

-China’s economic reform( shift from communisim to market socialism ) prompted India to reach out to south east asia to avoid falling into a subordinate political and economic role in the region.

-India’s desire to stabilize north eastern states where insurgency were picking up it pace.

Objective of look East policy-

-Regional economic integration and ties with ASEAN counteries- BIMSTEC, Mekong Ganga etc

-reform and liberalisation – free trade agreement

-sustained economic growth

-development of northeastern states- connectivity with south eastern counteries via roads , railways etc and infrastructure development

– to balance China’s influence in this region

-diplomatic engagement with southeast to border security and defence ties.

Approach for look east policy

  • Organizin“Milan”—a congregation of navies organized by the Indian Navy biennially since 1995 in Port Blair involving social and professional interactions, including combined exercises. In 2008 11 Navies including Australia participated.
  • Becoming a member of the ASEAN Regional Forum(ARF)—1996.
  • Completion of the 160 Km India-Myanmar Friendship road from Tamu to Kalemyo to Kaletwa built by the Border Roads Organisation—2001
  • Finalising the Kaladan Multimodal Transport project in 2009 especially in the context of Bangladesh being reluctant to allow transit facilities. By this the port of Sittwe in Myanmar (250 Km from Mizoram border)will be connected to the Indian ports and Kaletwa (Myanmar)will be linked with the National Highway 54 at Nalkawn in Mizoram.
  • Shortcomings

· India still remains outside the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum

· India has entered into a number of pacts, agreements and FTAs with nations of ASEAN but its record for implementation of such accords has been poor.

· India lags behind China and Japan in almost all spheres of Pan East Asian cooperation, East Asian observers reckon that India has so far appeared less proactive than China on some critical issues.

· Some analysts feel that India’s Look East Policy lacks a strategic vision despite seeking defense cooperation with some ASEAN nations (Myanmar, Indonesia and Vietnam) and securing a role for joint patrolling in the Malacca Straits. India does not take an assertive role perhaps due to it limited military capability


Act East Policy adopted by PM Narendra Damodardas modi in 2014 .

-it focus on ASIA PACIFIC region.

this is not just a re-branding rather it carried a significant message with it that India is willing to play a more active and prominent strategic role, exemplified by enhanced defense diplomacy in east and south east Asia.

India, under Act East Policy, has started projects like Kaladan Multi-modal Transit Transport Project, the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway Project, Rhi-Tiddim Road Project, Border Haats, etc. to connect North-East India with South-East Asian countries. Act East Policy has placed emphasis on India-ASEAN cooperation in India’s domestic agenda on infrastructure, manufacturing, trade, skills, urban renewal, smart cities, Make in India and other initiatives.

The North East is key for India’s ties with ASEAN:

India and ASEAN relationship

  1. Ever since India transformed its “Look East” policy to “Act East”, there have been continuous efforts to make this relationship result oriented and practical
  2. In the absence of political differences, trade and investments should be the main drivers of the relationship, but India and Asean are struggling to push bilateral trade to the agreed target of $100 billion
  3. How can it be improved: This could be helped by improving connectivity(through land, sea and air) which will cut down costs of movement of goods and services

Connectivity through tri-lateral highway: The importance of the North-East India

  1. Among the connectivity projects already envisaged is a four-lane trilateral highway linking India (Moreh in Manipur) with Mae Sot (Thailand) via Myanmar which will be expanded to Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam
  2. This highway can only be sustained through movement of goods and economic activity along the route through Myanmar and
  3. Hence, the growing importance of our North-East

It is essential to focus on development and connectivity in India’s North-East itself

  1. It can be done with new road and rail links, opening up multi modal transport, including river navigation, and setting up industrial corridors and economic activities like haats or local markets, with emphasis on agriculture, horticulture, handlooms, handicrafts and processed food
  2. This will allow India to export its produce through this link rather than become a net importer of cheap Chinese goods

What about sea connectivity?

  1. Sea connectivity from India to Asean will be helped by the Kaladan multi-modal transport project
  2. It will link Kolkata to Sittwe port in Myanmar, as also Mizoram by the river and land route

Budget for North-East development

  1. India plans to spend Rs45,000 crore for the development of the region bordering China, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Myanmar

Recent development projects in the NE

  1. Some recent decisions to enhance connectivity of the North-East include
    (1) a 4,000-km long ring road connecting the states; expediting railway projects connecting all state capitals by 2020, and extending to 15 new destinations;
    (2) border last-mile rail connectivity with Myanmar and restoring rail connectivity with Bangladesh
  2. Twenty port townships are to be developed along the Brahmaputra and Barak river systems to enhance intra-regional connectivity
  3. Government has also proposed the augmentation of air connectivity to and from the region, which will help business ties with the Asean
  4. Connectivity is also being upgraded in the border areas for strategic purposes
  5. This will also aid in improving law and order in the region and boost the underutilized tourism potential

Japan as a major partner

  1. Japan has emerged as a major partner in our efforts for the development of the North-East and connectivity to Asean
  2. The “Japan India Act East Forum” has been set up
  3. It will seek synergies between India’s Act East policy and Japan’s Partnership for Quality Infrastructure located in the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and link with Japan’s “Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy”

Thank you!

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